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Practice - Plus Fundamentals - Makes Perfect

By revamping its aeronautics and astronautics department, MIT believes it has found the right balance between hands-on learning and engineering science.

By Wray Herbert

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ed Crawley wants to revisit what he calls the Golden Era of engineering education, and he is making his own department of aeronautics and astronautics the vehicle to get back to the future. The Golden Era that Crawley has in mind is the late 1950s to the early 1970s. That period, he contends, is when engineering education at the university level was in perfect balance, offering a mix of hands-on practice and scientific fundamentals. Traditionally, dating back to the 19th century, engineering had been taught by practicing engineers, with the focus on solving real problems in the conceptualization and design of products and systems.

Around mid-century, Crawley says, in part because of a rapid expansion of scientific and technical knowledge, the field started to become "engineering science-based," and for a brief window of time, aspiring engineers were being taught by an ideal combination of both "old practitioners" and "young turks" of engineering science. Then—and unfortunately, Crawley says—the practitioners retired, leaving the universities dominated by engineering scientists. "We forgot our origins," he says. "We need to weave together the best of the two traditions."

POINT AND CLICK. Students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology use infrared devices to respond to problems in class

Which is not to say that the revamping of MIT's "Aero-Astro" program is in any way retrograde or old-fashioned, or that it de-emphasizes scientific fundamentals. Indeed, the highest priority of the so-called CDIO initiative (for "conceive-design-implement-o perate") is a deep working knowledge of scientific fundamentals. But the idea, according to engineering professor Ian Waitz, is to wrap those fundamentals in the context of real product development.


 

Mastering the Basics

The problem with modern engineering education, Crawley and Waitz both emphasize, is a tension between technical education (learning to solve hard problems) and real-life professional and personal skills like teamwork, communication, curiosity, and perseverance. As a result of this tension and not enough time in a day, students can end up with a superficial grasp of both engineering science and project skills. The goal of CDIO when it was conceived in 1996 was to examine this tension; the result is a program aimed at using exciting design challenges to motivate students to learn fundamentals. Crawley recognized early on that even the best aeronautic engineers are not necessarily the best educators, so he brought in specialists in learning theory and curriculum development to help design the CDIO curriculum. For example, the course progression from freshman to senior year is based on what's called Bloom's taxonomy, a cognitive hierarchy that proceeds from the most basic kind of learning-knowledge acquisition-through competence, application, analysis, synthesis, and, finally, judgment and evaluation. Too often, curricula are designed with little or no attention to learning theory, and students are called upon to make sophisticated judgments before they have the fundamental know-how in place. CDIO aims to correct that flaw.

CDIO in practice can take many forms. Although the traditional lecture has not been displaced entirely, students are much more apt to participate in various forms of "active learning," according to Waitz. In many classrooms, for example, students use infrared remote clickers to respond to problems, allowing professors to detect areas of confusion and respond to them. It's what Crawley calls "heads-on" learning; students are equal partners and learn to take more responsibility for their own progress, as they will be expected to do in their real lives as engineers. In this way and others, the program aims to turn out lifelong learners. Students in the Aero-Astro program are also encouraged to take part in various design initiatives, under the direction of retired Air Force Colonel Peter Young. One example is the so-called SPHERES project: Synchronized Position Hold Engage Re-orient Experimental Satellites. Undergraduates involved in this project developed volleyball-sized satellites, which are then tested in weightlessness aboard a NASA KC-135 airplane (the infamous "vomit comet"). The ultimate application of these satellites is a space telescope, with higher resolution than Hubble, that would be created by stringing together several such satellites outfitted with mirrors.

Even the brand new Aero-Astro Learning Lab, a $14 million facility, is based on cognitive theory. According to Cory Hallam, who conducted research in learning theory for the architects and designers, the department did a "modal analysis" of how students learn. They came up with a list of 22 modes of learning—from traditional lectures to team projects to distance learning and project design—and the Learning Laboratory is designed to facilitate these various modes of learning. For example, Hallam did a five-week study to find out when students work independently in the lab. What they discovered is that students' days are booked from nine to five with classes and so forth, and that they do about a quarter of their learning between midnight and 7 a.m. As a result, students have access to the lab 24 hours a day. They also found that much learning takes place in informal interaction, in the corridors, so they designed so-called "think stops" in the building's nooks and crannies, where students can sit and have access to a computer should the impulse hit them. Says Hallam: "Engineers don't say, 'OK, at 4 o'clock today we get together and make a discovery.'"

Practicing What They Teach

WORK IN PROGRESS. MIT students put scientific principles into practice.
A major part of the CDIO initiative, Crawley says, is to strengthen ties between the department and industry. To this end, he has done several things. He has involved people from the aeronautics industry in designing the curriculum, and brought in practicing aeronautical engineers to teach in the program. He has also encouraged junior faculty members to take leave and practice engineering in the field for a time. Two recently hired faculty members, he notes, were fresh out of school; he told them to "go be engineers" before teaching.

Crawley characterizes CDIO as an "experiment." And indeed he has put in place a rigorous assessment component to measure its success. According to Doris Brodeur, who was brought into the CDIO program as an expert on learning theory and educational assessment, measuring the success of such an innovative program requires a whole new repertoire of tools. Students are not only tested in the traditional way on their grasp of mathematical and scientific fundamentals; they are also rated on newly devised scales for such professional and personal skills as ethics, critical thinking, teamwork, and communication. This is highly labor-intensive for faculty members, Brodeur notes. To evaluate students' skills in making a technical briefing, for example, it's first necessary to determine what the critical components of a good briefing are, then to observe and rate each student's performance. These ratings are incorporated into students' class grades. To assess various kinds of active learning and classroom technologies, it's necessary to weigh not only whether students are learning more, but also their enjoyment, satisfaction, motivation, and ability to apply their knowledge.

Ultimately, Crawley says, the real test of CDIO's success will take place out in the real world. "Our students got into this field for the betterment of humanity," he says, "not to solve differential equations. We're engineers, not applied mathematicians."

Wray Herbert is a freelance writer living in suburban Washington, D.C.

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