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Experiencing Real-world Multidisciplinary Software Systems Engineering through Aircraft Carrier Simulation

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Software Engineering Constituent Committee Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Software Engineering Constituent Committee

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Paper Authors


Dan Tappan Eastern Washington University

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Dan Tappan is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Eastern Washington University. He has been a professor of computer science and engineering for 11 years, before which he spent a decade in the defense industry as a software and systems engineer, mostly involved in the modeling and simulation of weapon systems. His main research areas are software and hardware systems engineering, especially for aviation and military applications with embedded systems and mechatronics; modeling, simulation, visualization, and analysis; intelligent systems/artificial intelligence (knowledge representation, reasoning, machine learning); and CS/engineering education.

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Modern technology is a complex combination of mechanical systems controlled by electrical systems ultimately controlled by software systems. Mechanical and electrical engineering students generally receive multidisciplinary hands-on exposure to such real-world applications, but those in computer science rarely see or appreciate this perspective. This work provides an engaging virtual environment for investigating an extensive breadth and depth of practical aspects related to the analysis, design, implementation, testing, evaluation, refinement, verification, validation, and accreditation of software-based systems of systems. The overarching theme is the operational environment of an aircraft carrier containing a wide variety of complex static and dynamic components. The primary ones are the carrier, its aircraft, and refueling tankers, all interacting through secondary ones such as the catapult, landing trap, optical landing system, refueling boom, tailhook, etc. By posing and getting resolution on who-what-when-where-why-how questions, students thoroughly decompose each component into its data, control, and behavior elements, which respectively correspond to what it is, what it can do, and what it actually does in all relevant contexts. This organization then maps onto well-established creational, structural, and behavioral design patterns within an architectural framework for respectively building, connecting, and using the components in real time. It also establishes a data-information-knowledge-wisdom hierarchy that helps students understand the problem domain in terms of requirements and specifications. This flexible environment then allows students both to analyze existing solutions (which would be impractical to build themselves) and to synthesize their own, depending on the emphasis. At all stages, it fosters critical thinking because the subject matter, pedagogical approach, and tools force students outside of their comfort zone, where they cannot rely on their generally inexperienced, brute-force problem-solving strategies to construct a solution. In particular, it contributes to understanding how to develop a mental model of the unfamiliar real-world problem space, which through many transformations ultimately maps to the solution space in software.

The environment is based on a framework of modeling, simulation, visualization, analysis to construct, operate, observe, and evaluate the virtual world from countless perspectives, respectively. It immerses students further into the world of engineering critical thinking by employing the scientific method as the strategy. Students must justify their decisions by demonstrating the performance of their solutions through repeatable controlled experiments that lead to an extensive test report. This approach helps them develop and refine their technical communication skills, which are traditionally the most neglected aspect of students' software development process.

Semi-longitudinal assessment of 34 students based on over a dozen quantitative and qualitative measures has shown this pedagogical approach to be very effective (90% positive) at exposing undergraduate software-engineering students to challenging but rewarding real-world experiences while keeping the process manageable for both them and the instructor. In addition, it has been applied equally successfully to classroom projects for other systems engineering applications, including a fly-by-wire control system, unpiloted aerial vehicle simulator, air traffic control system, virtual military test range, and toolkit for heavy construction equipment.

Tappan, D. (2016, June), Experiencing Real-world Multidisciplinary Software Systems Engineering through Aircraft Carrier Simulation Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26822

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