Conference Paper: Fostering Systems Engineering Education through Interdisciplinary Programs and Graduate Capstone Projects

Title: Fostering Systems Engineering Education through Interdisciplinary Programs and Graduate Capstone Projects

Publication Date: 6/26/2011

Conference: 118th American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Annual Conference and Exposition, Vancouver, BC, Canada, June 2011


The United States Department of Defense is experiencing significant shortages of scientists and engineers, and the shortage is even more severe in the area of Systems Engineering (SE). The challenge is to not only increase the numbers of scientists and engineers, but to improve the system level thought processes of these individuals. Graduate degree programs, as a part of a larger professional development program, are often relied on to provide this higher level perspective. However, many graduate degree programs, especially those at research focused graduate schools, tend to be narrowly focused within sub-disciplines of an academic department. While this may serve the academic community well in terms of furthering research programs and developing future researchers, it is not the only, and may not be the best, approach for educating practicing engineers returning to industry and/or government offices where their newly acquired knowledge will be applied. The graduate SE program at the Air Force Institute of Technology has been conducting defense-focused interdisciplinary and interdepartmental capstone projects over the last few years that have combined students across multiple disciplines on broadly scoped topics using SE to define, scope and integrate the individual research efforts. These projects typically result in multiple thesis documents covering several research investigations, with an additional document written by the SE students that provides the unifying framework for integration and, where applicable, transition of the demonstrated technologies. All projects have one or more sponsors, often including one from the operational organizations with the Department of Defense. These sponsors are often actively involved in the conduct of the project, thus providing relevance and subject matter expertise. Prior projects combined Systems Engineering and Aeronautical Engineering graduate students, but newer projects are expanding the pool further to include other Engineering, Engineering Management and Cost Analysis students for a variety of projects. In the past, non-SE students have been encouraged, but not required, to take introductory SE courses; recent experience has shown increased benefit from classroom exposure of non-SE students to SE curriculum elements, and this benefit can extend beyond those students directly associated with the SE capstone projects. The program has received positive feedback from most of the graduates that have participated on these projects, and the influence of the SE program has grown far beyond the number of students entering the graduate school for SE.