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Bridging Engineering and Psychology: Using an Envision Gold Certified Project to Teach Decision Making for Sustainability

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Engineering in Societal Context

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

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Paper Authors


Nathan McWhirter Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Nathan McWhirter is an M.S. student in the Civil Infrastructure Engineering program at Virginia Tech. His interdisciplinary research incorporates findings from behavioral science to improve engineering decision making for sustainability. Related interests include the Envision rating system, service engineering, and sustainable development.

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Tripp Shealy Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Tripp Shealy is an assistant professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and principal faculty member in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech. He received his doctorate from Clemson University. His research is broadly focuses on judgment and decision making for sustainable infrastructure. This includes engineering education for sustainability.

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The objective of this research is to help engineering students develop the interdisciplinary skills required to address critical and rapidly evolving societal challenges. We designed a case study on the Historic Fourth Ward Park in Atlanta, a project recently certified Gold by the ISI (Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure) Envision rating system. The Envision rating system is a holistic planning tool that can help mitigate barriers in decision making to facilitate more sustainable outcomes across its categories of quality of life, leadership, resource use, the natural environment, and climate and risk. The Envision case study was used as the basis for a teaching module bridging engineering and cognitive psychology by highlighting the interconnectedness between these fields. Too frequently, engineering and design decision makers can become overloaded by choices when trying to optimally meet the needs of multiple stakeholders. Furthermore, because of human cognitive limitations, decisions are rarely fully optimized, instead often settling for a “good enough” solution. This case study and class module included several activities intended to increase undergraduate engineering students’ awareness of cognitive barriers (specifically choice overload, bounded rationality, and satisficing) and their impacts on design decisions in engineering for sustainability. The case study provides an overview of the project context and requirements. Students developed, sketched, and rationalized their own design solution. A subsequent in-class instruction session presented new information from psychology and behavioral economics literature about selected cognitive barriers relating to the project, and explained how Envision can be useful to mitigate them. The students responded by investigating further ways that Envision could be used to improve their design solutions. Students’ learning from the case study module was assessed with surveys before and after the module, which included their confidence level about each of the student learning outcomes, their level of agreement with certain statements about sustainability, and their knowledge about sustainable design and Envision. Survey results indicate that the module was effective in meeting the learning objectives; it also improved students’ understanding of Envision and the role of cognitive barriers in decision making. These outcomes will help students recognize the impacts these barriers have on multiple stakeholder groups, as well as how certain planning tools and frameworks may be used to overcome them.

McWhirter, N., & Shealy, T. (2017, June), Bridging Engineering and Psychology: Using an Envision Gold Certified Project to Teach Decision Making for Sustainability Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--27978

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