Stephen L. James, Douglas W. Ruth


The purpose of capstone courses and projects in engineering is to provide a learning experience that effectively and reliably solidifies earlier acquired understandings. It provides a culminating exercise that lies just beyond a student’s existing ability so that learning is furthered while motivation is preserved. Historically, individual engineering projects, practicums, and internships have been heavily used to provide that culminating experience; however, with often disappointing results. This has been particularly the case in attempting to cap off programs in systems engineering where the learning ideal would be to have a student experience a real-world complex multi-disciplinary engineering and program environment. Given the limitation, this paper proposes using a term-long, class-based, repeatable meta-case as the capstone learning venue, particularly in support of systems engineering programs where securing meaningful experiential learning is difficult. Case teaching is a classic approach in law, medicine and business faculties where the need to develop higher cognitive abilities—analyzing, synthesizing and judging—inside high ambiguity and across multi-disciplines is paramount. A meta-case, as opposed to other case types, is characterized by the use of a very complex, multi-factor (engineering) real-world challenge with a long, multi-stage solution scenario. In proposing the use of a capstone meta-case, the paper presents its use in an aerospace systems engineering environment where development timelines are very long, and where the engineering requirements and solutions are many and highly interdependent. It specifically discusses the course design structure and considerations associated with a meta-case based on the development of the Airbus A400 military transport aircraft. The paper is based on a year-long study into the use of the case method for teaching aerospace systems engineering.

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