Engineering students spend the majority of their academic careers learning tools to enable tasks related to detailed design. For example, a mechanical engineer may learn to size a heat exchanger so that an engine would not overheat, an electrical engineer may learn to specify gains in a control system to provide desired performance, and a civil engineer may learn to size columns to avoid buckling. While these analytical capabilities are essential to the execution of engineered systems, there are tools and perspectives related to systems and their design that are historically absent in an undergraduate engineering education. Through the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN) and the University of New Haven, the authors have developed a flipped classroom module that provides a basis in systems thinking as related to the conception and execution of complex engineered systems. The module could be useful in several areas of the curriculum, but is primarily intended to develop perspectives and skills necessary to ensure a successful capstone design experience.
The module is broken into five lessons: (1) Foundational Concepts, (2) Key Systems Principles, (3) Architecture Development, (4) Multiple Views of a System, and (5) System Verification and Validation. Lesson 1 begins with the importance of the problem statement, and then proceeds to introduce form and function, function mapping, and many key definitions (system, interface, architecture, systems engineering, and complexity). Lesson 2 introduces key systems principles, including systems thinking, systems of systems, and system decomposition. Lesson 3 overviews the systems architecting process and summarizes the four most typical methods used to develop a system architecture. Lesson 4 discusses viewing a system from six different perspectives. Lesson 5 presents the systems engineering V model, requirements cascading, and verification and validation.
The module includes several interactive activities and built in knowledge checkpoints. There is also a final challenge wherein the students must apply what they’ve learned about systems thinking and systems engineering to a hypothetical problem.
This paper will further describe the module content and format. The paper will also make the case that the content included in the module is essential to an efficient, effective, and rewarding capstone design experience. This is achieved by summarizing common pitfalls that occur in a capstone design project and how good systems thinking can avert them. The pitfalls covered include failure to fully understand all key stakeholders’ most important needs, failure to understand desired system function in a solution-neutral way and failure to follow a robust process to map function to form, poor choice of how to decompose the system into subsystems, errors/inefficiencies in interface definition and management, and poor (if any) planning for design verification and validation.