Following the first two weeks of her CE 419 Capstone Design course, Karryn Johnsohn was unsure as to how her final two terms as a senior would pan out. Tasked with creating a wildlife crossing proposal for the Oregon Department of Transportation, Johnsohn and her three teammates did not understand the project and were at a loss as to how to proceed.

“The team was assigned to design something, and I realized I had never designed anything in my life,” Johnsohn said. “We were completely lost. None of us had any idea what was needed to design and propose an effective wildlife crossing.”

Although Johnsohn and her teammates were frustrated at the start, it is the exact type of reaction Oregon State University Civil and Construction associate professor Shane Brown, Ph.D., P.E., who leads the course, expected to see. 

Funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Brown is conducting research to understand how practicing engineers utilize fundamental engineering concepts in their practice and how they view knowledge and learning. His research findings suggest students are inadequately prepared for engineering positions following graduation. 

“The problem is students are struggling with open-ended, complex design problems when they enter the engineering workforce,” Brown said. “Strong communication, leadership, teamwork, and other T-shaped skills necessary to effectively complete a task are lacking. Once they enter the field, we are finding they do not know how to do the job. It is not because we needed more time with them while they are in school; it is because we are not thinking about their education from a design perspective.”

To address this need, Brown has created a capstone course at OSU that allows students to work through a project from beginning to end. This past year, students enrolled in the two-term course were split into 36 teams of four and assigned to one of nine real-world engineering design problems. The projects, presented to the class by industry clients, included the ODOT Wildlife Crossing, City of Corvallis Sandy River Bridge design, and an ODOT Umatilla Road improvement design.

“The idea is to give them a project with thousands of possible solutions and let them tackle the problem from a design angle,” Brown said. “We make it authentic by having clients present the teams with real-world projects and problems. Students are forced to ask questions, work by trial and error, apply what they have learned, and present the client with their recommendations.”

Though it poses Johnsohn and the rest of her classmates with some stressful moments at the start, the result is a positive one for students as they prepare for life following graduation.

“I learned so much during the class,” said Johnsohn, who is now pursuing a master’s degree in civil engineering. “It taught me how to be a proactive problem solver. I learned how to research a real-world topic, ask questions, evaluate answers, and apply my knowledge to help find a solution. In the end, the class taught me how to be a better engineer.”

The feedback on the course from industry partners has also been positive, signaling to Brown that institutions will need to consider and implement a design-based approach to education in the future. 

“The higher education system is going to shift over the next 10 years, and we need to continue to evaluate how we educate future engineers,” Brown said. “It is a great opportunity for OSU to be a leader in engineering education and have a positive impact on students and the profession.”

To learn more about the undergraduate programs at the Oregon State University School of Civil and Construction Engineering, visit the construction engineering management and civil engineering academic pages.