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Problem Based Learning In Aerospace Engineering Education

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Classroom Innovations

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.940.1 - 7.940.8

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Paper Authors

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Kim Blair

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David W. Miller

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David Darmofal

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Col. Peter W. Young

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Doris Brodeur

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Session 2202

Problem-Based Learning in Aerospace Engineering Education

Doris R. Brodeur, Peter W. Young, Kim B. Blair Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Problem-based learning is now a widespread teaching method in disciplines where students must learn to apply knowledge, not just acquire it. In the undergraduate curriculum in Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, problem-based learning and design-build experiences are integrated throughout the program. In an early freshman-year experience, Introduction to Aerospace and Design, students design, build, and fly radio-controlled lighter-than-air (LTA) vehicles. In the sophomore-year Unified Engineering course, students design, build, and fly radio-controlled electric propulsion aircraft. In a course on Aerodynamics, a case study from either industry or government is used to provide an authentic problem. Upper-level capstone courses are entirely problem-based. In these PBL experiences, students identify problems of interest to them and experiment to find solutions, as well as design complex systems that integrate engineering fundamentals in a multidisciplinary approach. This paper describes several problem-based learning experiences in undergraduate aerospace engineering at MIT within a four-level framework for categorizing problems. It presents the learning theories that underlie the success of PBL, identifies the basic characteristics of PBL, critical features in the design of problems, and effective methods for assessing PBL.


Interest in problem-based learning (PBL) arose in higher education in response to criticisms that programs in professional areas, e.g., medicine, engineering, failed to equip graduates with the problem-solving skills required for a lifetime of learning. 1-2 Problem- based learning has now become a widespread teaching method in disciplines where students must learn to apply knowledge not just acquire it.

Problem-based learning derives from the theory that learning is a process in which the learner actively constructs knowledge. Learning results from a learner’s actions; instruction plays a role only to the extent that it enables and fosters constructive activities. 3 Three major theoretical principles support the practice of PBL: 1. Learning is a constructive process 2. Knowing about knowing (metacognition) affects learning 3. Social and cultural factors affect learning.

Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright Ó 2002, American Society for Engineering Education

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Blair, K., & Miller, D. W., & Darmofal, D., & Young, C. P. W., & Brodeur, D. (2002, June), Problem Based Learning In Aerospace Engineering Education Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada.

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