The stakes tend to be pretty low when it comes to constructing LEGO® projects, but not when they’re being used in a DAU course to illustrate how systems engineering is applied to systems acquisition and sustainment. That’s because success or failure in the classroom translates to real-world consequences on the ground.
The course, Applied Systems Engineering in Defense Acquisition, Part II (ENG 202), is part of the certification training requirement for the engineering career field. Participants are divided into teams of no more than six and are tasked with applying digital engineering concepts to design and build a robotic mine-detection vehicle using LEGO pieces.
“The composure of the teams is really important,” Tyrone Theriot, an Engineering and Technology Department Chair at DAU, explained. “Because if we can mix entry-, mid-, and senior-level students on a team, they all bring a different perspective, which is invaluable. It’s not just about cost, schedule, performance, and critical thinking—they bring the intangible of their experience and viewpoint.”
Each team must complete a series of exercises that walks them through every phase of the acquisition lifecycle.
“The students get real-world representative requirements documents with threshold and objective performance criteria, and then we determine if they meet the criteria using an operational assessment,” course instructor Brian Kozola said.
The LEGO vehicle is the physical manifestation of those criteria.
“Building the product helps them understand what the contractor is going through and how they interpret the requirements, because vagueness could cause them to build something horrible,” Theriot said. “So as the students make engineering trade-offs, they have the perspective needed to convey information in a format that allows everyone to make an informed decision.”
That attention to real-world detail also extends to prioritizing the risk management and configuration management systems engineering processes, which 6 of the 10 exercises emphasize.
“If you’ve been a part of the acquisition process, you’ll realize that these two things are always pushed aside by other ‘higher priority’ issues, so people are always trying to catch up,” Ray Khan, ENG 202 course instructor, said. “But they’re that important that they need to be focused on.”
It’s all part of the larger goal to make sure the students are prepared for any situation they might face in their workplace. “We give the students a lot of issues that they would deal with in real life, like presenting contractor information and government information that doesn’t match up,” said Khan. “Then they have to apply critical thinking to figure out how to match that up. They want it to go smoothly, but it never goes smoothly in real life!”
Theriot seconded Khan’s assessment.
“We have hard performance requirements and hard cost requirements that the students are designing around, so they have a slew of choices, or engineering tradeoffs,” he said. “I have seen steam come out of people’s heads when they get the LEGO kits and try to put them together!”
Khan also said that as the teams progress through the exercises, “they live with their decisions” regardless of whether they are good or bad—though he was quick to clarify that failure is a relative term.
“Our approach has always been to reduce the amount of time that the student is going to hear the instructor speaking and move them into an environment where they’re going to work together, as an engineering team, to come up with a solution,” he said. “So even if a team is not successful, there’s still learning going on and it’s something they can take with them.”
It’s a forgiving approach that isn’t limited to the students. This past spring, when the pandemic forced the instructors to transition their course online, they were given the same leeway by the university itself.
“The biggest thing DAU [leadership] did for us was giving us the freedom—unconstrained freedom—to figure it out without imposing some overarching guidance to constrain us,” Khan said.
Theriot concurred. “[Leadership] allowed us the opportunity to do some experimentation to see what would work,” he said. “They left it to us to find the best approach, the best methodology.”
Their biggest challenge was turning the course’s hands-on project into a virtual one without losing any of the benefits.
“We didn’t want to take the existing curriculum and slap it into Webex with no critical thinking or student exercises involved,” Theriot said, adding that none of them had even used Webex by that point. “We wanted to develop a high quality, interactive course. So we gave ourselves four weeks to consider, design, develop, and deploy—just like you would do in the class.”
And like their students, they brainstormed on the best path forward.
“It wasn’t just a one-and-done sort of effort,” Theriot said. “This was a collective of thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and we applied that to each and every lesson—and we were critical of each other as well.”
One thing they weren’t ready to do was give up on having the LEGO project be the foundation of the course.
“We really embraced the LEGO project for the in-residence version, and we talked about how we could use it in the online version,” Kozola said. “So, on the last day before starting full-time telework, I grabbed six kits and a set of obstacles for the test track. I didn’t know what we were going to do with them, but I wanted to ensure that we had the resources available to integrate the hands-on LEGO project into the virtual offerings.”
His quick thinking paid off. Using what he had brought home, Kozola made 10 unique versions of the vehicle comprising different components, characteristics, and functionality. He then made three dozen videos of them in operation—overcoming obstacles, going over ramps, completing a slalom, and completing an entire obstacle course.
“I filmed them in my garage on my cellphone with a tripod,” he said. “My neighbors were probably wondering what I was doing playing with LEGOs in my garage!”
Finally, it was time to deploy ENG 202V, the virtual instructor-led training (VILT) version of the course. Using the LEGO digital designer, students were able to make engineering trade-offs to select their preferred design and parts online.
“We created a spreadsheet that gave them costs and performance characteristics based on their choices,” Theriot said. They also shared the video that corresponded to those choices so that the students could see their bespoke vehicle in action. Likening the process to a choose-your-own-adventure book, he added that students "were able to visualize their decision-making process while they worked through the exercises.”
While not perfect, the end results far exceeded their expectations.
“The feedback we’ve been getting is very good," he said.
They were also pleased at the amount of collaboration the VILT version yielded.
“Because a lot of engineers are introverts, it’s possible they can hide online,” instructor James Roche said. “But it was really surprising how well they stepped up to this environment and communicated.”
That success bodes well for the future, given the increasing emphasis on a digital engineering approach to acquisition.
“The DoD is really pushing using digital techniques, models, and tools to acquire our weapons systems,” Khan said. “And the online version immerses the students in that digital engineering environment. They have no choice but to go 100 percent digital.”
As for those planning to take the course in the future, Kozola offered a pro-tip.
“The DoD is not worried about profit, but they are worried about value to the tax payer,” he said. “While the tracked vehicle is the highest performing, it’s also the most expensive, so the students have to make hard decisions regarding performance and cost trade-offs.”
Getting value from tax-payer dollars? In the government, it doesn’t get more real world than that.
Required fields marked with *
Please note that you should expect to receive a response from our team, regarding your inquiry, within 2 business days.