Asee peer logo

Integrating Affordances Into Function Based Reverse Engineering With Application To Complex Natural Systems

Download Paper |


2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Design in Engineering Education Potpourri

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.751.1 - 14.751.18

Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors

author page

Dominic Halsmer Oral Roberts University

author page

Nate Roman Oral Roberts University

author page

Tyler Todd Oral Roberts University

Download Paper |

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

Integrating the Concept of Affordance into Function-based Reverse- engineering with Application to Complex Natural Systems Abstract

The practice of reverse engineering is not only receiving increased attention in fields involving artificial systems such as computer software development, but also in fields involving natural systems such as molecular and cellular biology. As an example, a recent pronouncement of the National Academy of Engineering lists “reverse engineering the human brain” as one of the grand challenges for the next century. The applicability of engineering design principles to natural systems has been well recognized, but ambitious attempts to further reverse engineer such complex systems will require the latest advances in design thinking. The recent concept of design affordance readily lends itself to the analysis and understanding of complex natural systems that exhibit multiple interactions between subsystems.

Traditionally, reverse engineering has been based on the analysis of decomposing engineered systems into functional components. Recently, the concept of affordance, or what one system provides to a user, or to another system, has broadened the way engineers look at design. This paper attempts to provide an alternate method of reverse engineering that incorporates the idea of affordances. It is anticipated that this method will be particularly useful for illuminating our understanding of natural systems. By looking at the affordances of a system and the interrelationships illustrated by the affordance structure matrix, significant information can be obtained that might otherwise be missed if only considering functionality. Reverse engineering with respect to affordances should lead to a better understanding of not only the system, but also the purpose and plan behind it.

In addition, the introduction of reverse engineering of complex natural systems in the engineering curriculum provides a rich vehicle for making connections with several other fields of study, which engineering students would do well to consider. An example is developed which considers the system of life on Earth as a complex network of multiple interacting and interrelated subsystems. The integration of the concept of affordance into a function based reverse engineering approach is sketched. This approach provides additional insight into the system, which may lead to significant implications for the humanities and social sciences.

Reverse Engineering in the Undergraduate Curriculum

Much of modern engineering education typically involves the infusion of ideas from the humanities and social sciences in an effort to help engineering students communicate better, become more ethical, and see the task of engineering in a larger cultural context. This is as it should be, but is it possible that the field of design engineering might lend insight and wisdom back to the humanities? If engineering design principles are so helpful in unraveling the mysteries of biology, might they also be useful in the social sciences? These are just some of the questions being posed in an engineering elective course at Oral Roberts University (ORU), where undergraduate students wrestle with advanced concepts in reverse engineering. A recent article in ASEE Prism1 touts the benefits of having engineering students engage in the dissection of mechanical devices to reverse engineer the design thinking that went into their development.

Halsmer, D., & Roman, N., & Todd, T. (2009, June), Integrating Affordances Into Function Based Reverse Engineering With Application To Complex Natural Systems Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas.

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2009 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015