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MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

Aero-Astro Magazine Highlight

The following article appears in the 2006–2007 issue of Aero-Astro, the annual report/magazine of the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department. © 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

CDIO in Aero-Astro, and beyond

By Edward F. Crawley

The CDIO Initiative is an innovative educational framework for producing the next generation of engineers. Developed initially in MIT Aero-Astro, CDIO provides students with an education stressing engineering fundamentals set in the context of Conceiving — Designing — Implementing — Operating real-world systems and products. The CDIO Initiative was developed with input from academics, industry, engineers and students. It is universally adaptable for all engineering schools. Twenty-four collaborating schools throughout the world have adopted CDIO as the framework of their curricular planning and outcome–based assessment.

MoRETA (Modular Rover for Extreme Terrain Access), a legged interplanetary rover that can access terrain too extreme for current rovers, is the current project of Professor David Miller’s 16.832 Space Systems Product Development class. As the CDIO capstone course, 16.832 offers students the opportunity to apply all aspects of the conceive-design-implement-operate skills they’ve learned in Aero-Astro. (William Litant photograph)

CDIO Capstone students

Over the last decade, MIT, and, more specifically, the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, have been among the leaders in the ongoing reform of engineering education. In the Department, our specific contribution has focused around the CDIO program. The motivation, origins and evolution of the program, as well as a small hint at the valuable contributions made by our faculty, staff and students, will be described briefly below.

The motivation for CDIO can be found by examining what engineers do. Aerospace engineers build and operate things that serve society – aircraft, airports, air transport systems and space launch and space-based systems. Theodore von Kármán said “Scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was.” Modern engineers lead or are involved in all phases of an aerospace system lifecycle; they Conceive, Design, Implement, and Operate.

The aims of the CDIO program, which takes its name from this lifecycle view, are to do a better job at preparing engineering students for this future, by systematically reforming engineering education. We believe that every graduating engineer should be able to:

complex value-added engineering products, processes, and systems
in a modern, team-based environment

A CDIO-based education always begins by emphasizing the technical fundamentals. University is the place where the foundations of subsequent learning are laid. Nothing in a CDIO program is meant to diminish the importance of the fundamentals, or students’ need to learn them. In fact, deep working knowledge and conceptual understanding is emphasized to strengthen the learning of technical fundamentals.

The second goal is to educate students who are able to lead in the creation and operation of new product, processes, and systems. This goal recognizes the need to prepare students for a career in engineering. The need to create and operate new products, processes, and systems drives the educational goals related to personal and interpersonal skills; and product, process, and system building skills.

The third goal is to educate students who are able to understand the importance and strategic impact of research and technological development on society.Our societies rely on the contributions of scientists and engineers to solve problems, ranging from healthcare to entertainment, and to ensure the competitiveness of nations. However, research and technological development must be paired with social responsibility and a move toward sustainable technologies.

CDIO’s origins

In the 1990s, the Aero-Astro Department conducted two systematic strategic planning exercises. Both of these, but especially the later one in 1997, identified a deep concern with university based engineering education, and therefore opportunities for improvement. Industry consistently stated that while students emerge from universities like MIT with an excellent knowledge base, they lack the “skills,” such as teamwork, critical thinking and social awareness, to effectively apply this knowledge to the development of new systems. This concern was reflected, for example, in the accreditation standards for engineering — ABET 2000. Our alumni voiced a similar view in surveys. They reported that the discipline base of their MIT education served them well, but increasingly in their career the generic, professional skills were more important. The Department heard this “voice of the customer” input very clearly.

At the same time, more bottom-up influence was being felt due to the long-standing commitment of the Department to quality in undergraduate education. Many of our faculty members, individually and in small groups, were experimenting with innovation in education. They were attempting to apply in practice the emerging scholarship on engineering education. The confluence of the interests of industry and alumni on one hand, and the commitment of our faculty and emerging research on education on the other, led to the establishment of CDIO as a goal of our strategic plan. We started a small pilot in the 1999-2000 academic year, and soon realized that resources and partners would greatly accelerate our effort.

In October 2000, the MIT and three Swedish universities, Chalmers University of Technology, the Royal Technical University (KTH), and Linkoping University, formally launched the CDIO Initiative. This was made possible through funding by many MIT alumni, corporations and foundations, particularly the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation of Sweden. This reform effort has now expanded to schools in the UK, Northern Ireland, the Nordic programs worldwide.

The CDIO vision

Underlying the CDIO approach are three key ideas: the context of the education; the “what” of the education, educational goals, and learning outcomes for the students; and the “how” of the education, a comprehensive approach to improving teaching and learning.

The first key idea is that we envision an education that stresses the fundamentals, set in the context of Conceiving–Designing–Implementing–Operating products, processes, and systems. The product, process, and system lifecycle is considered the context for engineering education in that it is the cultural framework, or environment, in which technical knowledge and other skills are taught, practiced and learned.

Student with telescope

Student Abran Alaniz makes adjustments to ARGOS, a multi-aperture design for a next-generation space telescope that was an Aero-Astro CDIO capstone project of several years ago. Projects like ARGOS provide excellent support for CDIO’s emphasis on acumen with all stages of product development. (William Litant photograph)


It is important to note that we assert that the product or system lifecycle should be the context, not the content, of the engineering education. Not every engineer should specialize in product development. Rather, engineers should be educated in disciplines; that is, mechanical, electrical, chemical, or even engineering science. However, they should be educated in those disciplines in a context that will give them the skills and attitudes to design and implement things.

The rationale for adopting the principle that the system lifecycle is the appropriate context for engineering education is supported by simple logic. It is what engineers do. It is the underlying need and basis for the skills lists that industry proposes to university educators. It is the natural context in which to teach these skills to engineering students.

The second key idea is that a CDIO education should based on clearly articulated program goals and student learning outcomes, set through stakeholder involvement. The knowledge, skills, and attitudes intended as a result of engineering education; that is, the learning outcomes, are codified in the CDIO Syllabus, and in early output of the CDIO Initiative (now translated into Swedish, French, Chinese and Spanish). These personal, interpersonal and system building learning outcomes, detail what students should know and be able to do at the conclusion of their engineering programs. Personal learning outcomes focus on individual cognitive and affective development; for example, engineering reasoning and problem solving, experimentation and knowledge discovery, system thinking, creative thinking, critical thinking, and professional ethics. Interpersonal learning outcomes focus on individual and group interactions, such as, teamwork, leadership, and communication. Product, process, and system building skills focus on conceiving, designing, implementing, and operating systems in enterprise, business, and societal contexts.

Learning outcomes are reviewed and validated by key stakeholders, groups that share an interest in the graduates of engineering programs, for consistency with program goals and relevance to engineering practice. In addition, stakeholders help to determine the expected proficiency level, or standard of achievement, for each learning outcome.

Mechanical Engineering students at Denmark Technical University construct a model of a portable shelter they designed in a CDIO design-build course. The CDIO Initiative, which started in MIT Aero-Astro, and DTU joined in 2002, has been adopted at 24 schools throughout the world. (DTU photograph)

DTU students with project

Setting specific learning outcomes helps to ensure that students acquire the appropriate foundation for their future. They allow effective design of the education, implementation of teaching and learning, and aligned assessment.

The third and final idea is that the design and execution of the education should be based on identified best practice an application of scholarship on learning. The salient features of the vision are that:

  1. Learning outcomes are met by constructing a sequence of integrated learning experiences, some of which are experiential, that is, they expose students to the experiences that engineers will encounter in their profession.
  2. A curriculum organized around mutually supporting disciplinary courses with CDIO activities highly interwoven, forming the curricular structure for the sequence of learning experiences
  3. Design-implement and hands-on learning experiences set in both the classroom and in modern learning workspaces as the basis for engineering-based experiential learning
  4. Active and experiential learning, beyond design-implement experiences, that can be incorporated into disciplinary courses
  5. A comprehensive assessment and evaluation process

We must find ways to realize this vision by strengthening the collective skills of the faculty, by re-tasking existing resources, while largely using existing resources. Together with the first two key ideas, on context and learning outcomes, these approaches are incorporated into the CDIO Standards of best practice.

CDIO dual impact learning

The essential feature of CDIO is that it creates dual-impact learning experiences that promote deep learning of technical fundamentals and of practical skill sets. CDIO uses modern pedagogical approaches, innovative teaching methods, and new learning environments to provide concrete learning experiences. These experiences create a cognitive framework for learning the abstractions associated with the technical fundamentals, and provide opportunities for active application that facilitates understanding and retention. Thus, these concrete learning experiences are of dual impact. More obviously, they impart learning in personal and interpersonal skills and product, process, and system building skills. More subtly, at the same time they provide the pathway to deeper working knowledge of the fundamentals.

The objective of educational design is therefore to craft a series of concrete learning experiences, including design-implement exercises, which will both teach the skills, and at the same time promote the deeper understanding of the fundamentals, and thus allow the CDIO goals to simultaneously be met.

One example is Aero-Astro’s three-semester capstone course. The goal of the capstone course is to immerse undergraduates in all aspects of the lifecycle development of an engineering product and thereby expose students to important aspects of systems engineering that are not experienced in conventional laboratory and design courses. This past year, the three-semester sequence, which started with students in the second term of their third year, allowed students to develop a legged interplanetary rover. Under the guidance of Professor David Miller, they experienced the formal reviews, carrier integration, customer communication, systems integration, procurement practices, industry collaboration, hardware qualification and many other stages in the evolution of an aerospace product. By experiencing the full lifecycle, the students gain a better appreciation for how decisions made early in the design impact downstream activities.

By conducting the development over three semesters, the students gain four very important experiences. First, they are provided with the time to make and learn from mistakes. If students are continuously guided towards the correct decision, they never have the opportunity to learn to recognize bad decisions or, more importantly, learn how to recover from bad decisions. Second, the length of the project allows the students to work through interpersonal conflicts and, as a result, develop into a cohesive team that not only works well together, but also has the confidence to assume responsibility and guide the development of the product. Third, the students are exposed to various forms and iterations of technical communications. By conducting reviews and writing multiple revisions of design documents for the same project allows the students to build upon their work, thereby not only strengthening the design, but also their communications skills. Fourth, the duration allows the students to take the design to a higher level of quality than a conventional one or two semester sequence would allow. Since quality is an essential element of any aerospace product, this experience is invaluable to their future careers.

Springer Publishing has published Rethinking Engineering Education, The CDIO Approach, a book detailing the CDIO process. The worldwide expansion of CDIO will continue, with more universities from China, Europe, and the Middle East about to join. The most important progress is taking place in the classroom and teaching workspaces, where every day students and faculty are working to achieve the desired learning.

Edward Crawley is the Ford Professor of Engineering in the MIT Aeronautics and Astronautics Department and is former head of the department. He is a founder and principle leader of the CDIO Initiative. Professor Crawley acknowledges the contributions made to this article by colleagues within the Department, and at participating universities worldwide. Additionally, underlying contributions of educational scholars, and those in industry, working tirelessly to communicate their needs, are equally important. He may be reached at

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