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Incorporating Complexity Into Undergraduate Engineering Development Through The Research Communications Studio

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

New Approaches & Techniques in Engineering II

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.739.1 - 10.739.11



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Paper Authors

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Loralee Donath

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Nadia Craig

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Nancy Thompson

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Michael Matthews

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The National Academy of Engineering’s Engineer of 2020 project addressed the growing need to pursue collaborations with multidisciplinary teams of experts, because of the increasing complexity and scale of systems-based engineering problems15. These teams must be able to communicate effectively with technical and non-technical people, to use technology to enhance communication, and to understand the complexities that are associated with the social, environmental, and technical aspects of their work. Through the communications approach, the RCS seeks to enhance students’ cognitive development. Herbert Simon points out that the basic principle of the enterprise of cognitive studies is that “learning takes place inside the learner and only inside the learner”.12 However, Simon also recognizes that “whether from books or people, at least 90% of what we have in our heads . . . is acquired by social processes, including watching others, listening to them, and reading their writings”. The RCS takes into account this socially distributed nature of learning by building an optimal environment for research learning to occur. The learners’ knowledge construction process is aided by an environment of distributed cognition in which participants at all levels—experts, mentors, accomplished novices, and novices—teach and learn from each other.4 The RCS addresses the development of communications abilities in a system of distributed cognition. Survey results of RCS participants are presented to provide an example of a way to incorporate complex systems study into the existing undergraduate engineering curriculum. Complex systems study is defined as a new field of science that studies the collective behavior of a system and how this system interacts with its environment. Complex systems study is laying the foundation for a revolution of all sciences to move beyond reductionism into holism.7 The undergraduate RCS students are forced to move from reductionistic thinking into holistic thinking. They must explain their research to students in different research groups, to students from different engineering disciplines, to an engineering mentor, to a linguistics graduate student, and to an English professor. By communicating their research to this varied audience, the students are forced to think about how their research fits in the ‘bigger picture.’ A method for determining whether the undergraduate students have become better communicators and complex systems thinkers will be discussed. The first part of this method involves pre- and post-semester surveys taken by the RCS students. The results of this survey indicate that students who participated in weekly RCS sessions are better complex systems thinkers. This was demonstrated by the students’ perceptions of themselves as better communicators after participation in the RCS. These findings are consistent with previous findings.

Donath, L., & Craig, N., & Thompson, N., & Matthews, M. (2005, June), Incorporating Complexity Into Undergraduate Engineering Development Through The Research Communications Studio Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--15392

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