A CDIO Primer for the Busy Engineering Academic and Administrator


In engineering education, as in all other aspects of higher education, we are constantly bombarded by a stream of new acronyms and concepts. CDIO is one such concept that has been around for a number of years, but one which most people are only just becoming aware of. My intention in this blog is to present a quick overview of the CDIO approach to engineering education reform. This should be adequate for anyone who needs a quick introduction, and is particularly ideal for busy senior academics and administrators.

What is CDIO?

The acronym CDIO stands for Conceive, Design, Implement, Operate. It is an approach to designing, running and coordinating undergraduate engineering education programmes with the objective of producing work-ready graduates equipped with the necessary professional and technical skills they need to hit the ground running when they move into employment.

The CDIO Approach

The CDIO approach is based on the premise that the conceive – design – implement – operate product/systems lifecycle approach is the basis for engineering practice, and as a result, every engineering graduate should be able to

conceive-design-implement-operate complex value-added engineering systems in a modern team-based environment (Crawley 2002).

The CDIO approach to engineering education is delivered in the context of the product/system conceive-design-implement-operate lifecycle, and it is designed to ensure that students are adequately grounded in the fundamentals of their engineering discipline. This approach is characterised by the following features (Crawley et al. 2014):

  • It involves stakeholders in developing learning outcomes.
  • It constructs a sequence of integrated learning experiences that offer authentic learning opportunities for students to encounter and experience situations that engineers encounter in their profession.
  • It ensures that learning activities simultaneously facilitate student learning of critical personal and interpersonal skills, and product, process, and system building skills, as well as enhancing the learning of engineering fundamentals.

CDIO driving factors

The main driver for the CDIO approach is the recognition that engineering education is characterised by an ever-increasing amount of technical knowledge. In addition, engineering graduates now need to be equipped with the necessary personal, interpersonal and professional skills they need to become effective from the very first working day (Crawley 2015). To address these two contradictory issues within the existing timescales for completing an undergraduate engineering programme, CDIO has opted for an approach to education that is based on the engineering problem solving paradigm.

CDIO historical Context

The historical context behind the CDIO approach is that following the end of the second world war, engineering education has evolved to a point where it has become too focussed on engineering science at the expense of engineering practice. This has led to a situation whereby engineering graduates lacked the skills that industry was seeking (Crawley et al. 2014). This state of affairs is a consequence of the long-term changes in the composition of engineering academics. Before the 1950’s, most engineering academics came from a practitioner background, and as a result, engineering education was primarily practitioner-oriented.

From the 50’s onward, incoming academics increasingly came through the graduate school route, and they were more well-versed in engineering science than engineering practice. Consequently, their teaching tended to draw mainly from engineering science. The resulting balance between practice and science in the 1960’s led to engineering graduates who had the appropriate mix of science and practice skills and insights that industry required.

However, from the 70’s onwards, as engineering scientists became the majority, engineering education became more and more focussed on engineering science, and increasingly dissociated from engineering practice. This has led to a situation where graduating students lack the skills required by industry.

Balance between practice and science

Implementing a CDIO curriculum

The CDIO approach envisions a curriculum that is organised around mutually supporting disciplines, with CDIO activities highly interwoven between them (Crawley et al. 2014). Learning should be rich with student design-build experiences, and delivered in classrooms and student workplaces that are sufficiently equipped and specifically designed to support active and experiential learning. This should be accompanied by assessment and evaluation processes designed to ensure constant improvement.

The first step in developing a CDIO curriculum is to identify the skills and attributes that students need to attain by the time they graduate. This should be done in consultation with stakeholders, who include current and former students, employers, academics and the society at large. These attributes and skills will constitute the programme syllabus.

Once the syllabus has been designed and agreed, the necessary learning activities needed to achieve the identified learning outcomes are then developed, alongside with appropriate assessment methods (Crawley et al. 2014). In practice, this may require modification of the existing curriculum and course modules, redesign of learning environments, and adopting student-centred, active and experiential learning approaches to teaching. Assessment methods also need to be evaluated and redesigned to ensure that they are fit for purpose.

The design and development of all these learning activities should be developed with reference to the 12 guiding principles that the CDIO Initiative has developed to describe CDIO programs. These principles are termed the CDIO Standards, and together they define the key features of a CDIO programme. These standards serve three primary objectives, namely:

  • providing guidelines for educational programme reform and evaluation
  • specifying programme benchmarks and goals
  • providing a framework for continuous programme improvement.

Table 1: Guide to the 12 CDIO Standards

CDIO Aspect Addressed by
Program philosophy Standard 1
Curriculum development Standards 2, 3 and 4
Design-build experiences and workspaces Standards 5 and 6
New methods of teaching and learning Standards 7 and 8
Academic staff development Standards 9 and 10
Assessment and evaluation Standards 11 and 12

Where to get additional Information

The best way to start off on your journey towards a deeper understanding of CDIO is by visiting the CDIO website: http://www.cdio.org/. There you will find relevant publications, notices for CDIO-related meetings, and you can also view a list of institutions that have adopted the CDIO paradigm.


Crawley, E. (2015). “The CDIO Syllabus: A Statement of Goals for Undergraduate Engineering Education, 2001”. City: Worldwide CDIO Initiative. http://www.cdio.org: CDIO Knowledge Library. Cambridge, MA; .

Crawley, E. F. “Creating the CDIO syllabus, a universal template for engineering education ” Presented at 32nd ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference; 6–9 November, Boston, MA.

Crawley, E. F., Malmqvist, J., Östlund, S., Brodeur, D. R., and Edström, K. (2014). “The CDIO Approach”, Rethinking engineering education. Springer, Cham, pp. 11-45.

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