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Complex Systems: What Are They And Why Should We Care?

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

ERM Poster Session

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.350.1 - 14.350.15



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Paper Authors


Nadia Kellam University of Georgia

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Nadia Kellam is an Assistant Professor and engineering educational researcher in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of Georgia. She is co-director of the Collaborative Lounge for Understanding Society and Technology through Educational Research (CLUSTER) research group. Her research interests include interdisciplinarity, creativity, identity formation, and the role of emotion in cognition.

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Joachim Walther The University of Georgia

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Joachim Walther is an Assistant Professor with the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Georgia with a research focus in engineering education. His research interests include engineering student professional formation and qualitative research methods in engineering education. He has a background is in mechanical engineering and a PhD in engineering education.

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Ashley Babcock University of Georgia

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Ashley Babcock is a pre-med student at the University of Georgia majoring in Biological Engineering and Romance Languages. Her research interests are in gender and diversity issues within engineering education with an emphasis on using the ecological concept of niche construction as a useful analog for diversity in engineering education.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Complex Systems: What Are They and Why Should We Care?

Key Words: Complex systems, emergence, adaptability, flexibility


Recently, engineering education research has begun to implicitly employ a discourse of complex systems with terms such as emergence, adaptability and flexibility permeating the discussions. This paper proposes that complex systems offer a unifying perspective for engineering education researchers and will help the discipline move towards a better understanding of the enterprise of engineering education. To explore this issue, the authors will first describe the major characteristics of complex systems and then evaluate whether engineering educators are indeed describing the attributes of engineering education systems as aligning with those of complex systems. Illustrative examples will be provided that show how the framework of complex systems promotes a better understanding of the some of the discrepancies and tensions within the discourse of the engineering education community. This preliminary document analysis research project involves a review of editorials in engineering education journals published in 2008 to determine whether these contributions by the leaders in the engineering education research community are pointing towards a need for a complex systems approach to engineering education practice and research. Specifically, this research explores the validity of the following hypothesis: complex systems provide a needed unifying perspective for engineering education. The preliminary research analysis answers the following research question: To what degree doleaders in engineering education intentionally or implicitly use concepts and language of complex systems when describing current and desired engineering educational systems? While this research is focusing on whether the engineering education is indeed a complex system, future research will be needed that takes a complex systems approach through developing methodologies and models so that researchers can begin to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of the engineering educational system and how to begin to facilitate changes in that complex system in practice.

Context and Background

Since the publication of the Green Report in 19961 there has been a strong push within engineering education practice and research to better prepare engineering graduates for the socio- technical world in which engineers are embedded. Surprisingly, this drive to better align engineering education with the socio-technical world began many decades earlier with the Carnegie Foundation's 1918 publication of A Study of Engineering Education2. In spite of the effort in recent years to operationalize the student learning of the necessary competencies (e. g. through ABET outcomes3) there is a disconnect between what students learn in engineering, what we measure that they learn, and what they ought to be learning. This could be partially due

Kellam, N., & Walther, J., & Babcock, A. (2009, June), Complex Systems: What Are They And Why Should We Care? Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--5703

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