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Comparing Organizational Structures: Two Case Studies of Engineering Companies

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Design as a Social Process: Teams and Organizations

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.374.1 - 26.374.18



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Paper Authors


Carlye Anne Lauff University of Colorado, Boulder

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Carlye is a 2nd year PhD student in Mechanical Engineering with a concentration in Design. She is originally from Pittsburgh, PA and received her B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. At the University of Colorado Boulder, she is advised by Dr. Mark Rentschler and co-advised by Dr. Daria Kotys-Schwartz. For the past two years, she has worked as a Graduate Research Assistant on the NSF-funded project entitled "Cognitive Ethnographies of Engineering Design." In this project, she is studying how design in constructed in different environments to better understand what is needed to ensure successful design projects.

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Daria A Kotys-Schwartz University of Colorado Boulder

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Dr. Daria Kotys-Schwartz is the Director of the Idea Forge—a flexible, cross-disciplinary design space at University of Colorado Boulder. She is also the Design Center Colorado Director of Undergraduate Programs and a Senior Instructor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. She received B.S. and M.S degrees in mechanical engineering 
from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder. Dr. Kotys-Schwartz has focused her research in engineering student learning, retention, and student identity development within the context of engineering design. She is currently investigating the impact of cultural norms in an engineering classroom context, performing comparative studies between engineering education and professional design practices, examining holistic approaches to student retention, and exploring informal learning in engineering education.

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Kevin O'Connor University of Colorado Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Kevin O’Connor is assistant professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. His scholarship focuses on human action, communication, and learning as socioculturally organized phenomena. A major strand of his research explores the varied trajectories taken by students as they attempt to enter professional disciplines such as engineering, and focuses on the dilemmas encountered by students as they move through these institutionalized trajectories. He is co-editor of a 2010 National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, Learning Research as a Human Science. Other work has appeared in Linguistics and Education; Mind, Culture, and Activity; Anthropology & Education Quarterly, the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science; the Journal of Engineering Education; and the Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research. His teaching interests include developmental psychology; sociocultural theories of communication, learning, and identity; qualitative methods; and discourse analysis.

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Mark Rentschler University of Colorado at Boulder

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Mark Rentschler received an M.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, in 2003, where he was a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellow, and a Ph.D. degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE, in 2006.
He is currently an Assistant Professor and Design Center Colorado Founder/Director of Graduate Programs in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO. He also holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Surgery and an affiliate position in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, CO. Prior to joining the University of Colorado in 2008, he was a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Division of Vascular Surgery at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE, and Senior Engineer and Director of Operations at Virtual Incision Corporation, Boston, MA.
His research is focused on medical device and surgical tool design, tissue mechanics characterization and dynamic contact modeling, robotics and mechatronics, and mechanical design education,.

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Engineering Design Process: More than the ‘Standardized Loop’Introduction - Engineering design is a complex process that has been simplified to embrace asystematic ‘loop,’ which can be easily taught to students and utilized by professionals. It is well-recognized that simplified design loops do not represent all aspects of design, and research inengineering education has addressed complexities; even so, there remain aspects of the designprocess that need further research. In particular, understanding how engineering design is bothshaped by and also shapes the setting of design activity, including symbolic and material setting,institutional and organizational structure, and the like. Throughout a two-year ethnographic studyof university and professional engineering design teams, we investigated how phenomena likespace, time, and organizational structure play important roles in creating an authentic designexperience. This research adds to understanding complexities of engineering design and allowsus to rethink how critical, yet subtle components are used to frame and scaffold the designprocess. Overall, the findings will help structure more authentic design courses at universitiesand improve the quality of design work.Conceptual Framework - This ethnographic study was approached within the conceptualframework of heterogeneous engineering, which emerged from Social Studies of Science andTechnology as a way of countering a received “ideology of engineering” that reducesengineering to the application of technical principles in the service of solving technical problems.The notion of heterogeneous engineering, in contrast, sees engineers as system builders who areinvolved in the active stabilization of systems composed of heterogeneous elements, both humanand nonhuman. In this sense, what is being engineered is not just a technical object; rather,engineering does produce technical objects, but also persons, institutions, and everything that ispart of the system that constitutes the object. All of these objects create the design ecology,which are interrelated components used to support the design process, and are critical to thesuccess of the project.Methodology - The central methodology is that of cognitive ethnography, which examines howcognitive tasks are accomplished within functional systems constituted of heterogeneouselements. Over two years, six undergraduate and three professional design teams were observedusing traditional ethnographic techniques. Interviews were conducted with members of thedesign ecology, documents and correspondences were collected, and the culture andorganizational structure of these settings were understood. Together, the data was triangulatedand compared to see trends of these important, yet often overlooked design components.Preliminary Findings - The initial findings suggest that organizational contexts constituteprocesses of design differently. In the university, comparisons were made between the samecourses taught by different professors. Through this side-by-side comparison, we saw howproject scope, resource proximity, space allocation, and personal feedback are essential tocreating an authentic design experience. Additionally, in companies we witnessed the visibilityof the project, physical spacing of employees, and duration of design phases as potential barriersto success if overlooked. We believe that through our design process comparisons we willcontinue to unveil these subtle components of engineering design that have an immense impact.

Lauff, C. A., & Kotys-Schwartz, D. A., & O'Connor, K., & Rentschler, M. (2015, June), Comparing Organizational Structures: Two Case Studies of Engineering Companies Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.23713

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