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Exploring Students' Perceptions of Complex Problems and Stakeholders

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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

Innovation and Reflection

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Irene B. Mena University of Pittsburgh

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Irene B. Mena has a B.S. and M.S. in industrial engineering, and a Ph.D. in engineering education. Her research interests include first-year engineering and graduate student professional development.

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Alexander T. Dale Engineers for a Sustainable World Orcid 16x16

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Alexander Dale is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow hosted at the US EPA, and Board Member at Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW). His career has included time in academia, nonprofits, and federal policy, focusing on energy, water, and transportation policy, life-cycle assessment, and multidisciplinary education.

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Studies have shown that engineering students are typically exposed to problems that are not representative of the problems they will encounter as practicing professionals: problems that are hard to define, have multiple stakeholders, and involve non-engineering constraints. There is therefore a need to expose engineering students to real, complex problems. In addition, various publications in engineering education, including ABET outcomes, have also emphasized the importance of preparing students to work in multidisciplinary teams and to be knowledgeable of current issues.

In 2013, [University X] implemented a course (ENGR XX) on social entrepreneurship that targets these concerns. The course, titled “Social Entrepreneurship: Engineering for Humanity”, discusses social entrepreneurship through the lens of sustainability and “wicked”, or complex, problems. It is taught as part of [Organization name and initiative on wicked problems – to be added in final draft], in which [the organization] provides the participating schools with a different wicked problem every year. The course is open to all majors, and to both undergraduate and graduate students. While the majority of the students thus far have been mostly undergraduates from different engineering majors, there have been undergraduate students from non-engineering majors as well as graduate students from both engineering and non-engineering majors, providing a multidisciplinary environment for students to discuss and learn about wicked problems.

Although the semester-long project is a group project, students work on individual writing assignments that they submit throughout the semester. They are given prompts related to wicked problems, sustainability, and social entrepreneurship, and they then write 600-1000 words in response to this prompt. These writing assignments require that students find appropriate references to provide facts and support their statements, but they also require some personal reflection, and convey each individual’s perspectives about the different topics. The purpose of this study is to explore how students’ perceptions of and engagement with complex problems and stakeholders change as a result of participating in this course. Students’ individual writing assignments from the last four years that the course has been taught were qualitatively analyzed to answer the following research questions:

(1) In what ways do students describe and approach complex problems, and how does this change from the beginning to the end of the semester? (2) In what ways do students involve, respond to, and characterize stakeholders, and how does this change from the beginning to the end of the semester?

Data were analyzed using open coding. No predetermined themes were used as part of the data analysis; the resulting themes emerged from the data. Findings from this study can provide information regarding how students begin to think about complex problems, current issues, and stakeholders – problems such as those they will encounter as engineering professionals – and how these thoughts evolve throughout the semester.

Mena, I. B., & Dale, A. T. (2017, June), Exploring Students' Perceptions of Complex Problems and Stakeholders Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28333

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