Third time is the charm: Management Engineering Case Days

MSCI 100, a first year Management Engineering course taught by Professor Ken McKay, introduces students to the main concepts of the discipline in their first term. The course’s main goals are to introduce the core principles that students will apply throughout their undergraduate studies and to prepare them for their first co-operative education term.

The course was pedagogically redesigned based on including authentic self-directed learning, and providing students with opportunities to develop their professional skills (especially teamwork, project planning, time management and critical thinking). Professional Skills and Communication were taught within the context of the specific discipline as recommended in [1]. The overhauled course is composed of several activities/deliverables for students to experience multiple constructive failure-recovery cycles as a way to teach students the advantages of making mistakes [2].

In this blog post I will talk about the ‘case days’ experience, one of the cornerstones of the course that I helped plan and facilitate with the course’s teaching team. Three ‘case days’ were designed to provide an intense and deep learning experience regarding problem-solving, teamwork, and project management. On each case day, students, in teams, were given the case study at 8:30 am, their final product was due by 4:30 pm. There were no other courses, lectures, labs, or tutorials on these days. The requirements were vague, the problem was ill-defined, and the students were given ample opportunity to make mistakes and learn from them. Furthermore, not everything they needed to know had been taught in class and they had to teach themselves new material during these days. The students were expected to meet specific deadlines throughout the day and were given extensive rubrics. The student teams were assigned advisors (staff and faculty volunteers) who provided guidance throughout the day. The role of the advisors purposely diminished each case day. The teams eventually met requirements on their own, without any hand holding.

Student course evaluations were conducted in the prescribed way. In their evaluations, most of the students reported that they liked how the course was designed to foster their independent learning skills; this was evident to them during case days and hands-on projects where lots of ‘aha’ learning moments were achieved. They highlighted that they liked:

  • case days and how challenging they are
  • spending a whole day on MSCI 100
  • being encouraged to think
  • learning from their mistakes and improving
  • developing their team work and project planning skills

They also noted that:

  • cases related well to course material
  • cases allowed better understanding of the course as a whole
  • cases made it easier to learn VBA

In addition to what the students enjoyed in the course, some of them highlighted aspects that they thought needed improvement, they suggested to:

  • teach the material needed for case days
  •  shuffle the team members
  • change Samantha (our main case character)
  •  decrease amount of self learning
  •  decrease ambiguity

The student advisors witnessed the following:

  • Teams progressed from “groups” to “teams”. Throughout the case days, they learned each other’s strengths, weaknesses, how their different personalities meshed together, effective communication, roles, etc. By Day 3, their team building had successfully given them a foundation to problem-solve effectively.
  • Teaching teammates was one of the main skills that students developed as advisors always emphasized that every team member needed to be able to present all the work done by everyone, which was faced by students’ resistance initially. However, they really valued it by the end of the course.
  • Different advisors observed different time management skills in their teams, a couple of advisors noticed improvement in their teams’ time management skills based on their stress level. On Day 1, groups were highly stressed and struggling to meet deadlines while by Day 3, teams were much more relaxed and they handed in their work ahead of the deadlines. Another advisor noticed that time management was still a big challenge for their teams.
  • Generally the advisors stayed away from direct instructions and gave advice in the form of questions. On Day 1, this strategy seemed to incur more stress on the student teams since they were still working on building their professional skills and did not want to think the problem through on their own – they were hoping for some quick answers. By Day 3, they seemed to be more confident to take the open-ended advice and apply it to their work.
  •  On Day 1, student teams created project plans because this was a mandated deliverable. However, it was evident to most advisors that minimal thought went into the plan and it was sensed that students had no real intention of referring back to their original plans during execution. Luckily, teams realized their mistake at the end of Day 1 and from then on, the time spent in developing and adhering to their project plans was much more rigorous.

If you would like to know more about this experience, please refer to our paper  [3] or contact me


  1. Julia Pet-Armacost and Robert L. Armacost, “Enhancing communication and professional practice skills in an introductory engineering course,” in Proc. Frontiers in Education Conf., FIE2003, vol. 2, pp.10-15, 2003.
  2. Oscar Nespoli, William Owen, Colin Campbell, and Steve Lambert, “Engineering case study implementation: Observations, results and perspectives,” in Proc. ASEE American Society for Engineering Education Conf., (Austin, TX; 14-17 June 2009), 12 pp., 2009.
  3. K. Mckay, S. Mohamed, L. Stacey, “Concepts Only Please! Innovating a First Year Engineering Course,” in Canadian Engineering Education Conference, Halifax, 2016.

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Samar Mohamed

Samar Mohamed is the CTE Liaison for Faculty of Engineering. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence Samar worked as a Post Doctoral Fellow in Electrical and Computer Engineering Dept. She received both her MSc and PhD from the University of Waterloo

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