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Engineering Education Reformed

A project-based curriculum developed by the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics better prepares students for industry and is attracting attention from around the world.
April 1, 2004

After the Berlin Wall came down, signaling the end of the Cold War, Earll Murman, then head of the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, knew the future of aeronautics was going to be very different from its past. The Cold War had fueled a 50-year period of intense aircraft, missile, satellite, and spacecraft development in the United States aimed at keeping tabs on Communist states. With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Murman wondered, would the need for aerospace engineers in the United States drop? How would the department have to adjust to be viable in the postCold War era? “I knew something had to change, but I didn’t know what it was,” he now recalls. That question set the faculty on a 12-year journey that has transformed the way aeronautics is taught at MIT and at other universities here and abroad.

The result of that journey is a new conceptual framework for education with four directives: conceive, design, implement, operate. Its goal is to teach engineering students not only the technical fundamentals of their disciplines, but also nontechnical skills, such as working in teams, communicating through written or oral presentation, and considering their work within the context of society and professional ethics. Instead of emphasizing analysis and problem solving in a theoretical realm, classes now stress team-based projects in which students go through the complete conceive, design, build, and operate cycle. Reform in engineering education is happening piecemeal across the country, but according to project director Ed Crawley ‘76, SM ‘78, ScD ‘81, aero/astro is the only department to change its entire curriculum and to make the design-and-build cycle pervasive.

CDIO, as the framework is known, is the result of numerous surveys the department conducted in the 1990s of industry and government leaders, alumni, and educators. The surveys showed that the success of complex aeronautics projects depends as much on critical thinking and modeling as on an understanding of thermodynamics. In 2000, CDIO became an international collaboration: three Swedish universities joined with the Institute to help develop the curriculum, which was implemented in the fall of 2003 at all four institutions. The collaborators maintain a dialogue about what works and what doesn’t and continue to refine the project. Determining additional members of the collaboration is a selective process managed by the four founding institutions. Now, with five new members and many more schools waiting in the wings to join, CDIO is poised to spread around the world.

The Heart of the Matter

In the new project area adjacent to the library, students are gathered around a dozen or so tables covered with papers and models. The noise sounds more like that of a confab in the student center than one in an academic department. It’s the end of fall semester, and the teams are rushing to finish their projects. Students encounter their first major team project in the spring of their sophomore year: they use the entire semester to conceive, design, and build remote-control airplanes. Then the teams have a competition to test their ability to operate the planes they have built. Peter Young ‘67, who worked on space projects in the air force for 29 years, manages the student projects. Students usually understand concepts in the lectures, he says, but applying them in something that they actually build is an eye-opening experience. And that is the heart of CDIO. The projects “allow the context for teaching all of these other skills but also provide a reinforcement and motivation for learning disciplinary skills,” says Crawley.

As students progress through the curriculum, the projects become more complex. During their last three semesters, students can elect to take a capstone design course that requires them to integrate and apply their complete knowledge of aeronautics in one project. The first such capstone project has been refined through a graduate-level project that will be tested on the International Space Station in the near future. The capstone students conceived, designed, and built what they called intelligent spheres. The spheres are three soccer-ball-sized microsatellites that move on command and can be programmed to work together or alone. The students’ final task was to test the spheres on NASA’s KC-135 plane, which achieves the near zero-gravity conditions of space flight by executing parabolic arcs. The students had to establish that the spheres worked and then run some limited experiments with them. Inside the space station is a laboratory to test algorithms for docking satellites and building large telescopes in space.

Young also works with students who, as an extracurricular activity, want to build and fly experiments on the KC-135. This summer a team of four students will test a prototype of a replacement for cockpit instruments that will help pilots recover from spins or stalls or fly through bad weather by responding to vibrations in their seats. Another project has a team of MIT students working with groups from the University of Washington and the University of Queensland in Australia to fly mice in low earth orbit for three months in a rotating vehicle that simulates the gravity on Mars. The project, which is planned to fly in 2006, will help determine if humans can travel to Mars.

Active Learning

In addition to the projects, MIT faculty have introduced new classroom teaching methods that will help ensure that students really understand the content of their courses. These so-called active learning methods make students participants in their own education instead of the passive note takers of the traditional lecture class. “We no longer think about a class as a place where you tell students information and they absorb it,” says Steven Hall ‘80, SM ‘82, ScD ‘85. “A 50-minute lecture is a place where faculty and students collaborate to help students learn.”

Hall began experimenting with active learning techniques in 1999. The most successful technique has been “concept tests.” Once or twice during a class, Hall will ask the students a multiple-choice question that will let him know if they understand the material. Students use infrared response pads to register their answers, which go into Hall’s computer. Almost instantly he can tell if the class is having trouble with a concept. “The first time I asked a question, I thought the students understood, but I discovered no one in the class knew what I was talking about,” he says. Hall responds in a couple of ways, depending on what percentage of the class is having trouble. Sometimes he has students talk to each other to see if they can figure it out. At other times he adds as much as a whole extra lecture of material to help students understand.

Another effective active learning method Hall uses is “muddy cards.” At the end of each lecture, he asks the students to reflect on what they’ve covered that day and describe on index cards the material they least understood. Having the cards poses another dilemma for a professor. “Do you move ahead, lecture more, provide another set of materials, tuck it away, and do better next year?” Hall’s solution is to answer all of the questions and post them on the class Web site, which allows students who are interested to browse through the answers without burdening other students in the class. The cards also serve a real purpose for Hall: they help him shape future lectures.

Although the transition from traditional lectures to active learning methods can be difficult for faculty, Hall says those who have used the techniques successfully say they will never teach the old way again. “It’s so clearly superior, both in terms of the student reaction and of the faculty experience,” he says. “It just doesn’t make sense to go back.”

Spreading the Word

In 2000, MIT needed a significant grant to implement its experiment in educational reform. The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, a Swedish organization that specializes in funding major scientific and educational research, provided the funds with the stipulation that MIT work with three Swedish universities (see “CDIO Collaborators,” sidebar) to refine and implement the project. That collaboration has advanced and enriched the project quickly and has verified that CDIO can be applied to any engineering discipline worldwide.

Now school representatives meet three times a year and share their experiences of incorporating the CDIO skills into their courses. Students attend the meetings to provide feedback to faculty and staff and to meet in their own group. They also conduct collaborative research projects on some aspect of CDIO.

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