A key role of universities is to prepare students to work in their chosen profession upon completion of their degree program. Engineering capstone design courses are often the only required courses that challenge students to draw on nearly all of the students’ previous collegiate learning experiences and to synthesize and apply these to creating a new solution to an engineering problem. Aside from internship and co-op experiences, these are often the first courses that expose engineering students to some of the technical and political issues that they will often face in their professional engineering careers. Industry often looks at these design experiences in addition to work experience when evaluating new graduates. While beneficial, there remains a perceived disconnect between what academia is producing and what industry is seeking. Industry is seeking ‘engineers’ who are well versed in the application of science to problem solving whereas academia is producing ‘engineer scientists’ who are well versed in the science, but lacking in the application of knowledge gained through experience. While some context-based learning opportunities are emerging much earlier in the engineering curriculum, the needs and means to provide such experiences remain limited. This paper discusses a pilot study that was conducted during the first term of a two term capstone design class in aerospace engineering aircraft design at Virginia Tech. The study explored the educational impact of utilizing realism and simulation to introduce the aircraft design process with the aim of determining if such an approach could help remedy the academia/industry disconnect and at the same time make for an engaging design experience for the students. Results indicate that the use of simulation was welcomed by the participants of the study and can help prepare students to think as working design professionals, not limited by the generic design solutions often found in academic de-contextualized design problems.
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