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AIDE course prepares students for future collaborations.
AIDE course prepares students for future collaborations.March 28, 2003Kelly Homan Rodoskikahoman@syr.edu
When he was growing up in Syracuse, Ryan Dygert dreamed of being an astronaut.
For Alexis Larson, the decision to major in engineering was inspired by her participation on a high school robotics team and by NASA’s space shuttle. Living in Florida during her high school years, she could watch the launch of the shuttle from the end of her driveway.
Now seniors in college, Dygert and Larson are preparing for their careers through the aerospace engineering program in Syracuse University’s College of Engineering and Computer Science (ECS). Their studies are getting an extra boost through the Advanced Interactive Discovery Environment for Engineering Education (AIDE) project. This project’s goals include advancing virtual collaborations of geographically distributed teams and using advanced information technologies to improve teaching effectiveness and undergraduate student education. A centerpiece of the project is a unique, senior engineering design course that prepares students for working in the anticipated virtual collaborative environments of the future, while learning multidisciplinary, systems-level engineering. The two-semester course, entitled “Collaborative Engineering Design,” is offered synchronously at Syracuse and Cornell universities. The project has received over $3.6 million in funding, including $2.9 million in funding from NASA secured by Rep. James Walsh. Other funding sources include the Empire State Development Corporation, and the AT&T Foundation.
The AIDE is a virtual Web-based environment accessed via personal computer. The 15 SU and 15 Cornell students enrolled in the course use the AIDE for project-based interactions; the AIDE contains all of the course-related material, a knowledge retrieval system, dedicated spaces for student teams to work, and asynchronous and synchronous communication tools. Asynchronous tools include e-mail, instant messaging, message boards and document exchange; the synchronous communication portion of the AIDE supports multi-point audio and video, screen sharing and application sharing, whiteboard, chat, and side conversation capability.
Barry Davidson, a Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence in ECS, is the principal investigator on the project. Co-principal investigators are Elizabeth Liddy, professor and director of the Center for Natural Language Processing in the School of Information Studies, and Anthony Ingraffea, professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Cornell University.
During the Fall semester, design teams of SU and Cornell students use the AIDE to collaborate on the thermo-structural design of a reusable launch vehicle that will serve as a replacement to the current space shuttle orbiters. Student teams present their work via a series of design reviews, which are are conducted in distance learning classrooms at SU and Cornell and linked through videoconferencing and screen sharing technologies. All students and participating faculty at SU and Cornell attend these reviews; NASA personnel have also attended past reviews via videoconferencing.
During the first half of the spring semester, the SU and Cornell students perform parallel but separate projects. They also participate in a series of exercises on collaborative skills, including explorations of virtual, computer-mediated and face-to-face collaborations. After spring break, the students return to combined classes and combined SU/Cornell student projects.
“Our day-to-day objectives are to teach a systems-level, multidisciplinary approach to engineering design, emphasize team-based problem-solving skills and introduce students to the latest collaboration, communication and simulation technologies,” says Davidson. “At the highest level, our overall goals are to prepare students not only to excel, but to lead in tomorrow’s workplace,” he adds.
Students and faculty members say the projects that the students work on, as well as the requirement to present their results through a series of design reviews, are similar to what the students will experience in the workplace. Arriving at the right answer is not all that is important in this course; it’s also about process.
“This course is totally open-ended,” says Dygert. “We are responsible for creating and designing to meet a necessary goal in the safest and most efficient way possible. I have learned a significant amount of material in this course, not just equations, but also more about the decisions that must be made as an engineer. We have been taught how to evaluate our assumptions – assumptions that would have been glossed over in a standard class.”
“The project is real; that’s the best part about it,” says Larson. “In all my other classes, I am doing problems out of books, double checking my answer with the professor’s solutions, double checking my math in my calculator or calling someone else to see how they did the problem and what they got for an answer. In this class, the answer is not the goal. The goal is the process of finding the answer and when, or if, you reach an answer, how valid it is. Nothing is simple.”
The students also say that the course has been useful in building teamwork skills. “With the increased interaction between geographically diverse companies and projects in the workplace today, this type of collaborative learning and working environment is very useful,” says Dygert. “As this type of interaction develops even further throughout industry, I believe this type of learning will become a necessity for success.”
“I think it is a great course that will definitely help me when I enter the workplace,” says Larson.