Being a Better Teacher of MBSE

The director of CAD/CAM at Wichita State University shares his best advice for educating engineers.

Dassault Systèmes has sponsored this post.

Even for professional engineers, model-based systems engineering (MBSE) is a difficult concept to master. Hard as it is to learn, teaching MBSE is even harder.

With MBSE becoming increasingly important in industry, engineering educators are hard at work creating the next generation of curriculum. One of them is Shawn Ehrstein, Director of Emerging Technologies and CAD/CAM at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR). Ehrstein and his colleagues are getting ready to launch a dedicated MBSE course based on their extensive experience teaching tools such as CATIA and 3DEXPERIENCE, a cloud-based design and manufacturing platform. spoke with Ehrstein to learn more about his approach to teaching tomorrow’s engineers.

Shawn Ehrstein, Director of Emerging Technologies and CAD/CAM at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research. (Source: Wichita State University.)

Shawn Ehrstein, Director of Emerging Technologies and CAD/CAM at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research. (Source: Wichita State University.)

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. How do you introduce your students to MBSE?

Shawn Ehrstein: The first part is getting them familiar with model-based systems engineering. What is it, what are the tools, how is it used to be successful on whatever project you’re working on.

Then we get into the actual usage of the tools. How do you use the tool? How do you start mapping things out? How do you define your dependencies, how do you define your requirements? And then in our case, how do we get them integrated into the 3DEXPERIENCE platform? So you have your requirements and your model-based systems engineering that has a direct digital thread into your 3DEXPERIENCE platform. Then as you go through your design and your manufacturing, how you tie all those requirements back and make sure you have that loop input from your model-based systems engineering and into your design, into your manufacturing and back around, to ensure that those requirements are being traced throughout the life cycle.

What are the biggest barriers to teaching MBSE?

I think the hardest part is truly having people understand what MBSE is and how it’s used. It’s hard to just teach the tool set and say, okay, now go do something. You have to have a good scenario or target activity that they’re trying to accomplish, so they know how to define those requirements. You want to try to avoid the case where you’re just willy-nilly assigning requirements.

It’s also true in the design world that we find on CATIA. You really want to get students to the point where they’re designing a model from scratch to accomplish a particular task with minimal constraints provided, but they have to get it to work within the system that they’re working in. So you have to have those scenarios that lead them to that type of thinking, and you’re using these tools to accomplish your design thinking. As opposed to just doing a step-by-step exercise.

What kind of design scenarios do you use?

We’ve done a number of things. A robotic arm—we use the tools to build all the necessary pieces of equipment that go together to build a robotic arm. We deal with a lot of projects on aircraft assets, so we may have an activity where students are building a tail for an aircraft or a wing for a drone, things like that.

Can students choose their own scenarios?

We give them the option. If they have something they’re passionate about and they want to take that as a project, they have to be cleared through the instructor. So we have a discussion with them about what they’re trying to do, and we’ll give them advice on ways they can simplify it. Then if they get that done, how they can go back and make it more complex. But we try to control the scope of their activity to make it doable. But that’s not to say some students have tried to do something that they didn’t get nearly as far on as they thought they might. That does occur.

What are the common struggles you see in these projects?

If they aren’t thinking, a lot of times students are more design focused than manufacturing focused. They don’t always think about how their design will affect manufacturing and the cost of manufacturing. The tools are super powerful and you can pretty much build anything that you want to build, when you think about it. You can make complex surfaces, fillets and radii any size you want. But when you start looking at it from a manufacturability viewpoint, that complex surface can be three, four times the cost to make. So if you’re purely focused on if the design looks really cool, you’re not thinking right. It’s what we call close viewing. You’re also not thinking about the simulation side of it.

It’s hard to teach that in a typical class because the time is limited. It’s hard to take all that into consideration and do something of any complexity, just because those projects can take a while. If you’re starting to get into the manufacturability and the simulation and stress analysis on your design, that’s a lot of avenues that you’ve got to cover all in one class. So it becomes difficult to do anything too complicated. That’s where we have a lot of applied learning options available to our students here at our school. Where they can take classes, but then they can also get a job working on a project of length, and work with a team of people on a project like they would if they were to go to industry.

How do you teach students to collaborate?

Student collaboration is huge. When I tell you it’s hard to do a class with a student and ask him to do a project of any complexity that really involves the full scope of a project, it’s because it’s too overwhelming for one person. So collaboration of students is critical because in industry or on real projects—I hate to use the word real, but I mean real industry projects—you’re working with a group of 50, 60 people trying to accomplish this task. And so you have to be able to know how to work with each other.

And so for us, students use the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. They learn how to collaborate with each other, they learn how to actually go through industry practices. We have lifecycle processes, so they can design something, but they have to route it, and it goes to another team to be checked, kicked back if there’s issues, until it gets to the point where it can be released. And then those release models all have to come together in assembly, all the way through the design chain that you would go through to get something that’s fully ready to be built and operational.

And along that way, there is no project that one person does by themselves. So you have to work with other students, and because our projects are for industry or DoD [U.S. Department of Defense], we have an intermix of full-time experienced engineers and staff that are on these teams. They review student work and set paths that students go through along the way that works them up to a complicated model.

How do you approach certification?

Our students are able to take the certification exams that Dassault [Systèmes] has. We obviously give them credentials based on our classes, but that’s going to be more of a Wichita State credential, where the certification is more national, if you will.

We’ve had pretty good success without doing any specialized training for the certification exams. It’s not like an ACT [standardized college admissions test] where you can go to class and learn how to take an ACT better. We don’t do any classes like that for certification. We have our normal training and project work. I’ve had students that pass certification that just went through the training before they were working on a project. But definitely the ones that go through the training and work on projects have a higher success rate on the certification than those who just come straight out of training and go. Generally you want to use the toolset in a project-based way for a while before taking that certification.

What do you find most valuable about 3DEXPERIENCE?

We really like the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. We do a lot of 3DEXPERIENCE training at the high school level, and the cloud has made it easy for us to do our outreach programs. And then with the advent of COVID, the tools for teaching online have been developed further than they’ve ever been. And the skill sets of students to learn from and instructors to be able to teach using these online formats has increased greatly.

And so 3DEXPERIENCE being on the cloud allows us to do that, allows them all to still access the same data environment. We haven’t gotten far enough along to do my dreams—I want to get to where we have students in Texas working with students in Tulsa working with students in Kansas to do one project together, and truly show the collaboration capabilities of the platform. So we want to try to grow that to that level with 3DEXPERIENCE. That’s one thing that we would really struggle to do with CATIA V5, which is not cloud-based, but file-based.