Mechanical engineering undergraduate programs in the US commonly have one or more courses and a capstone design project in their curricula that allow students to learn and put into practice the basic methodologies and tools that are typically used during the design and development of new products. However, in most instances the product design and development process considered is geared towards products of low to moderate complexity. Furthermore, little emphasis is usually placed on exposing students to systems thinking and systems engineering concepts. As a result, student teams tend to struggle when they have to design products involving multiple sub-systems and areas of technical expertise. This deficiency becomes particularly evident when students work on design projects corresponding to some of the collegiate design competitions sponsored by professional engineering societies such as the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Formula or Mini Baja competition or the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Human Powered Vehicle competition. In those projects, problems with the integration of sub-systems can be prevalent, causing major delays and last minute design changes that can lead to poor product performance or even failure.
One strategy to incorporate systems thinking and systems engineering concepts in the mechanical engineering undergraduate curriculum is to introduce the concepts in a gradual fashion, beginning in the freshman or sophomore year and culminating in a capstone design experience in which the students can apply and improve the knowledge, skills, and abilities that they have gained in their previous design related courses. This paper presents the approach that was used to include systems thinking and systems engineering concepts in a sophomore-level product design and development course for mechanical engineering undergraduate students. In addition, the results that were obtained during the first implementation, including data collected using different assessment instruments, are discussed.
Three main factors were taken into consideration in the approach that was followed. First, the educational materials and learning activities needed to be appropriate for the level of the course. Second, the time required to cover the new content had to be reasonable and the educational materials and learning activities needed to be such that they could be easily intertwined with the topics already covered in the existing course. Finally, the benefits of the modifications made to the course needed to be evaluated using different assessment instruments. Regarding the latter, a survey developed by some of the authors of this paper was applied at the beginning and at the end of the course to try to gauge the improvement in the systems thinking skills of the students.
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