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Identifying and Defining Relationships: Techniques for Improving Student Systemic Thinking

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

A Systems-Thinking Approach to Solving Problems

Tagged Division

Systems Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.793.1 - 22.793.15

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Paper Authors


Cecelia M. Wigal University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

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Cecelia M. Wigal received her Ph.D. in 1998 from Northwestern University and is presently a Professor of Engineering and Assistant Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC). Her primary areas of interest and expertise include complex process and system analysis, process improvement analysis, and information system analysis with respect to usability and effectiveness. Dr. Wigal is also interested in engineering education reform to address present and future student and national and international needs.

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Identifying and Defining Relationships: Techniques for Improving Student Systemic ThinkingABET, Inc. is looking for graduating undergraduate engineering students who are systemsthinkers. However, genuine systems thinking is contrary to the traditional practice of using linearthinking to help solve design problems often used by students and many practitioners. Linearthinking has a tendency to compartmentalize solution options and minimize recognition ofrelationships between solutions and their elements. Systems thinking however has the ability todefine the whole system, including its environment, objectives, and parts (subsystems), bothstatic and dynamic, by their relationships.The work presented describes two means of introducing freshman engineering students tothinking systemically or holistically when understanding and defining problems. Specifically,the modeling techniques of Rich Pictures and an instructor generated modified IDEF0 model arediscussed. These techniques have roles in many applications. In this case they are discussed inregards to their application to the design process.Rich Pictures, as defined by Checkland, pictorially and informally capture the structures,viewpoints, responsibilities, and processes of a situation. In addition, these pictures can illustraterelationships between the structures, processes, and responsibilities. Thus, these pictures aidusers to think systemically about a situation.The IDEF family of models is based on the concepts of Structured Analysis and DesignTechnique (SADT) developed by Douglas T. Ross at SoftTech, Inc. IDEF0 (IntegrationDEFinition language 0) focuses on the functional or process model of a system. IDEF0 is usedto produce a structured representation of functions, activities, or processes within a system ofinterest.These modeling techniques are introduced to students in the Author’s freshman course –Introduction to Engineering Design. This course uses project-based learning to address (1)problem definition, (2) attribute generation, (3) function, constraint and objective identification,(4) idea generation, and (5) simple decision-making as they apply to the design process. Toaddress (1), (2), and (3) and thus aid problem understanding, students use Rich Pictures andIDEF0 modeling. This paper shares the method of introduction of the modeling techniques tothe class and the outcome of student use of the models. Student applications of the modelingtechniques for supporting the design process are also provided. Student reactions to the rolethese modeling techniques played in their specific design activity (collected using a blind survey)are discussed.

Wigal, C. M. (2011, June), Identifying and Defining Relationships: Techniques for Improving Student Systemic Thinking Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC.

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