Introduction to ICED – part I

Heikki Immonen

ICED i.e. Innovative Conceptual Engineering Design, is an innovation education methodology developed by NASA astronaut and engineer Dr. Charles Camarda along with other experts such Dr. Oliver de Weck from MIT. ICED reflects Dr. Camarda’ s decades long experience as a NASA engineer. First implementation of the program took place in 2008 during a summer short course for junior NASA engineers (Camarda et al. 2013). Since then educational programs and courses following ICED principles have been operational in US and Finland (Immonen et al. 2017).

ICED methodology, or Epic Challenge program as it is more commonly known, aims to increase student motivation to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subjects, innovation and problem solving skills. To succeed, ICED focuses on the early stage of the product development life-cycle; a stage where teamwork, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking have a major role. Second, each student group tackles a so-called “epic” problem solving challenge i.e. an important sub-problem part of the overarching long-term mission of sustainable human habitation of Mars. Third, instead of theory, ICED emphasizes hands-on style of learning, giving student many opportunities to test and build the very solutions they are developing. Fourth, ICED promotes interactions between students and real subject matter experts from industry and academia. As a result, learning the ICED way offers a unique exposure to the world of innovation and how multi-disciplinary teams of professionals work to find solutions to extremely complex and difficult problems.

Team of students during the 2018 January kickoff week

Based on my personal experience with it, ICED curriculum has more than enough depth for a complete degree program in systems engineering or similar field. In the introductory course, however, focus is on the most central ICED themes and skills that offer the widest applicability regardless the field expertise or career plans the students might have. It is a crash course about Mars habitation and offers chances to meet experts from academia and industry. The introductory course also emphasizes team working, creativity, decision making, experimentation and communication skills. However, as an introductory course, it offers only a high-level view on more technical topics such as functional decomposition, systems architecture and the model-test-design cycle and the building block approach of experimentation.

Introductory course begins with problem definition by introducing students to the “epic” challenge of sustainable human habitation of Mars. In innovation a challenge is defined as a set of requirements that a possible solutions needs to satisfy in order to solve the challenge (or problem). Most important requirements are derived by dividing i.e. decomposing, the Mars challenge in to smaller sub-problems of food production, protection from radiation, communication between Mars and Earth and so on. During the course, each student is assigned to a team, which will focus one of these sub-challenges.  This process of breaking a big problem in to smaller problems, also known as functional decomposition, is then used for the second time to break the team’s important sub-challenge in to yet smaller sub-sub-challenges. For example, growing plants for food requires a way to provide carbon dioxide, illumination, nutrients and water for the plants, and protecting the plants from Mars hazards such as cold and hot temperatures, radiation and very low atmospheric pressure. Each team with a challenge to focus on uses a specific tool for managing the different sub-problems of their challenge. This tool, called the morphological table, is discussed in more detail later.

Each sub-problem should be captured on a list of challenge requirements, which then allows the team to know what kind of a solution they are suppose to develop. In addition to the list of sub-problems, a set of other limitations are added to the requirements list, too. For example, if the future Mars habitat has only limited space for food production unit, then this limit must be specified and described in the requirements list. To kickstart the course, student are given a list of requirements and a pre-defined morphological table of their challenge.

Examples of items belonging to a requirements list:

Develop a solution that:

Requires less than 20 cubic meters of space

Produces edible plant-based food

Has maximal food production rate

Provides maximal average light intensity on plants’ leaf surface

Requirements list allows the team to later compare solutions to each other using a method called the Pugh method. The Pugh table is a tool for collecting and preserving the list of requirements.

List of requirements also guides another key activity in this stage of the ICED methodology: Problem Immersion. Problem immersion means the process during which team member study existing knowledge and research regarding their challenge. Problem immersion is guided by the problem definition and students’ existing level of knowledge. Each sub-problem (or sub-challenge) is a topic for further study. For example, if one of the sub-problems is to provide maximum illumination to plants’ leaf surfaces, then topics of study (or uncertainties) coming from this sub-problem include: How light affects plant growth? and What kind of sources of illumination can be used in a greenhouse? Other items on the requirements list serve as other possible uncertainties in need of further study.

ICED methodology emphasizes the role of the team in knowledge capture i.e. in the problem immersion stage. Each team member will get a set of uncertainties to study. After looking for the information online and from other sources, each member shares her findings with the rest of the team.

Problem immersion doesn’t consist of information searching, only. It also includes hands on work and quick tests to better grasp the nature of the challenge. In the beginning of the course, each team is taught a small set of possible already existing solutions to each sub-problem of their challenge. If possible, the needed materials and technologies are made available for the team. These example solutions allow the team to do small tests to get a better sense of the problem. For example, a team developing a Mars suit could have flexible rubber sheets and hard rigid plastic sheets available together with a simple puncture test device. This way the team can quickly study the behavior of these different materials under strikes of varying power or varying thicknesses of the sheet materials.

Third, but not least, is the process of team development. Team development includes aspects of team formation and then actual strategies for the team to organize themselves in to a productive unit. Guiding principle in team formation is the maximization of skills diversity so that the team can draw from a maximal pool of knowledge and produce more innovative solutions. This is in contrast to a team with a largely homogenous cast. Next, team chooses a manager and quickly establishes basic rules and methods of communication. For a student, key thing to learn is how to communicate, make decisions as a team and how to commit themselves to deliver what the team has asked them to deliver.

In Joensuu, teams typically follow a simple pattern of communication. After every week, each team member writes a very simple weekly report covering his accomplishments, problems and other issues from the past week. These reports form the basis of weekly meeting agenda so that all the problems and issues of team members are discussed in the meeting. Big portion of the meeting is dedicated to planning and decisions regarding the next 7 days. In ICED, team learning is a central topic especially in the problem immersion stage. Thus a lot of meeting time is allocated to discussing what individual team members have learned doing their previous week’s information searching tasks. This leads to removal of some uncertainties, or knowledge gaps, and addition of new ones, which again stimulates another round of information searching and experimentation.

In the next part of this blog series we go further in introducing the key components of ICED methodology.


Camarda, C. J., de Weck, O., & Do, S. (2013, June). Innovative Conceptual Engineering Design (ICED): Creativity and Innovation in a CDIO-Like Curriculum. In Proceedings of the 9th International CDIO Conference.

Immonen, H., Gebejes, A., & Camarda, C. (2017). Entrepreneurial Outcomes of a 9-Month-Long Space Engineering Design Course. In Practitioners Proceedings of the 2017 University-Industry Interaction Conference.