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The complexity of modern technology is making it increasingly difficult for new engineering graduates to understand their job from a single domain perspective, much less the more limited perspective of a single sub-discipline within that domain. More employers are asking for students who understand a “systems perspective” of engineering. Unfortunately, the general idea of a “systems perspective” is a very nebulous concept that can change drastically depending on who is describing that perspective. In order to help define this perspective, a core set of technical systems competencies were identified in a previous effort. These competencies provide a basic skill set that can be applied within any discipline and across an entire curriculum. Exposing students to these systems competencies within the context of their discipline enables them to still achieve a high level of technical competence within their discipline, while showing them the relevance and importance of the “systems perspective.”
The set of behaviors that are identified in the technical systems competencies include: 1. Describing the target of innovation as not just an interconnection of subsystems, but also in terms of the target’s interaction with the larger system that surrounds it; 2. Applying a system stakeholder view of value, trade-offs, and optimization; 3. Understanding a system’s interactions and states (modes); 4. Specifying system technical requirements; 5. Synthesizing a physical architecture from the high-level design; 6. Assessing solution feasibility, consistency, and completeness; and 7. Performing system failure mode and risk analysis. The field of model-based systems engineering (MBSE) has produced a framework and standard vocabulary for applying these behaviors in order to create physical descriptions of engineering projects. The workshop facilitators have adapted formal MBSE approaches to create appropriately designed pedagogical materials to provide opportunities for the practice, assessment, and refinement of these technical systems competencies.
The facilitators represent several different academic departments and have developed pedagogical materials for different academic levels, illustrating that these competencies have relevance to engineering education in a very general sense. The application of these competencies has yielded measurable improvements in student understanding of system-related issues. Design courses in particular have benefited tremendously from the inclusion of models based on the technical systems competencies. The models provide a framework and vocabulary that can be applied commonly across diverse projects, ranging from small microcontroller-based systems and robotics, to a water-heating system for the NAE’s Grand Challenges. The models make it easier for faculty to teach the design process and develop more objective rubrics and assessment tools.