Students Becoming Engineers: Harry Steudel's Capstone Design Course

Harry SteudelThe seniors and graduate students in Harry Steudel's capstone design course (Engineering Management of Continuous Process Improvement, ISyE 515) do not just learn the principles and tools of industrial engineering, they also work as industrial engineers. In the semester long project for the course, students form teams of consultants: After researching areas of interest from health care to manufacturing to administration, the teams partner with local organizations, working with their clients to analyze and improve various processes.

While Steudel imagines that students often wish that this process was more straightforward, he believes that the authentic experience of becoming "consultants" is central to their development of engineering skill. "...I don't assign them [specific] projects, I don't line up the clients. They have to do all of that... [P]art of being a good industrial engineer is to be able to go out and convince people that you have some value. [It's important to] learn how to go out and make contacts and convince people that they should work with you."

Steudel explains that the inspiration for this project was his belief in the philosophy of "learning by doing." In this case, students learn the management and planning tools that form the basis of his class by using them to accomplish tasks in several different settings.

He first explains the tools and their uses - for example, process mapping to identify the sequence and logic of a process, or affinity diagrams to better understand how people’s ideas and experiences fit together - in a lecture. Afterwards, students use the tool in a team exercise, working together in class to solve a workshop problem. Finally, the students must use the tool in the context of their consulting project, where Steudel says "the real challenge comes in."

"[The students] need to teach the people that they're working with how to use the tool, and how to apply it so that they can get some good results as part of the process improvement. When students can do that, then they can really understand what the tool can do and what it can't do, and that's really learning by doing."

Students are actively learning throughout the experience, from making decisions about the process improvement to considering their own team participation to evaluating each other's projects at the end of the semester. In the final task, students must hone their presentation skills, writing up a report of their work and presenting it in a short talk for the class (and sometimes, the clients themselves). These presentations are rubric-scored by Steudel as well as by the class, with the scores weighted and averaged for a final presentation score. Final project grades are made up of this score and Steudel's assessment of the written report, and then, if necessary, adjusted according to students' evaluations of each team member's participation.

This process - the project's develoment, integration into classwork, and evaluation - may be complex, but Steudel points out that early on in his teaching career, he was eager to develop courses where students would be able to learn through teamwork, projects, and discussions. "[P]ersonally, [I realized that] if I would hear a lecture, I might retain about 10% of it unless I were to do something with it immediately... I was looking for a way [to create courses] that have good practical value to our students, and to teach in a way where the students will develop good understanding and good retention, and they will feel better about themselves and their capabilities."

He has been experimenting with his classes ever since, trying different approaches to topics, eliminating lecture where possible, incorporating several kinds of team activities, and finding physical spaces that are conducive to teamwork. "One of the principals of Delta is teaching as research, and... I have approached lots of what I have done here as an experiment. Set up the experiment, conduct the experiment, analyze the results, and see what works and what doesn't work," Steudel says.

Even seemingly small changes, like teaching the workshop portion of his classes in the new Human Factors and Team Dynamics Lab in the Mechanical Engineering building, can be significant. "One of the differences," he notes, "is the round tables in this lab. When you’re working in a team, you need to see and communicate with each other."

Even in lectures, Steudel likes to "turn the whole class into one big team" by posing real-world problems - for instance, how to understand the failure of change initiatives in companies - and giving students time to discuss and share different solutions, either in pairs or with the whole group.

Steudel believes that this method of students working with many different teams over the course of the semester - both with their clients and during class - helps to create open discourse around authentic problems, "where people feel comfortable expressing ideas because they know that they're not going to be criticized, and that different points of view have value."

In the end, Steudel says, his success is measured by whether his course helps to prepare students for their future careers: "When they finish this course, [students say that] they feel like they can actually go out and do something as an industrial engineer... I'm teaching them something that is useful and valuable to them, but also something that increases their confidence in their ability to go out and do positive things [as engineers] in the world."

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For more information about the ideas in this article:

1) Scholtes, P.R., et al. (1995). The Team Handbook. Joiner Associates, Inc. Madison, WI.

Though primarily designed for corporate settings, this book is a practical guide to teamwork that can be used across many different contexts, from creating extended projects to in-class exercises. Writing to a general audience that includes both team managers and team members, Scholtes includes information about all phases of teamwork: for example, ideas for project set-up, activities designed to make work more productive, and advice on learning how to work together. (See also the extended review of this resource, elsewhere in the November edition of TLI.)

2) Delta Pillars: Teaching-as-Research

UW-Madison's Delta program is a community made up of faculty, staff, post-docs, and graduate students who are focused on teaching in the STEM fields. The community's philosophy is based on three central ideas: Teaching-as-Research, Learning Communities, and Learning-through-Diversity. The pillar of Teaching-as-Research involves instructors' employment of research methods in their teaching, thinking through existing literature and research on teaching, designing and testing new classroom processes, and analyzing data from the "teaching experiment" to learn and move forward. More information on this pillar, and on the larger Delta community, can be found at the Delta website.