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Integrating Complex Systems Study Into The Freshman Mechanical Engineering Experience

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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

ME Education Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.784.1 - 10.784.9



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Paper Authors

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Wally Peters

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Michelle Maher

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Nadia Craig

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Veronica Addison

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

Integrating Complex Systems Study into the Freshmen Mechanical Engineering Experience Nadia Craig*, Veronica Addison*, Michelle Maher**, Wally Peters* *Department of Mechanical Engineering/ ** Department of Educational Leadership and Policies University of South Carolina


According to the president and a member of the National Academy of Engineers (NAE), William Wulf and George Fisher, “many of the students who make it to graduation enter the workforce ill-equipped for the complex interactions, across many disciplines, of real-world engineered systems.”1 Unfortunately, the traditional engineering curriculum is a series of courses that teach simple systems. There is no emphasis on the true complexity of these systems—how they interact with other systems. “Engineers normally will not spend their lifetimes solving purely technical problems. Most engineering problems span a wide range of both technical and non- technical areas. The non-technical include environmental, political, economic, social, regulatory and corporate factors that are usually interrelated in a complex fashion.”2 There is a need to engage students in a new way of thinking about the problems that they will encounter in their careers. To change the trend in thinking, it is necessary to change the way that courses are taught throughout the engineering curriculum.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) promotes a “shared vision of the future of mechanical engineering education in the context of new and rapidly emerging technologies and disciplines, national and global trends, societal challenges for the 21st century, and associated opportunities for the profession.”3 We are at the threshold of what is considered to be the century of biology. The ASME vision recommends reconsidering the traditional recognition of chemistry and physics as the only basic science courses.

We designed and taught a course for first semester honors engineering students for three semesters to address this needed change from a simple systems approach to a more complex systems approach by including biology in an engineering course. This course was designed to emphasize both the simplicity and complexity of the problems that they will encounter as engineers. The Shewhart Cycle was used as a tool for continuous learning and improvement in the design of this course.9 The Shewhart Cycle consists of four continuous steps: Plan, Do, Check, Act, and then repeat as necessary. If we discovered that the students did not learn what was intended in the check portion of the cycle, we would move through the cycle again under slightly different conditions. The syllabus reflects the Shewhart Cycle, because it leaves room for change by keeping the subjects somewhat vague, such as “Pit and Pit’um Laboratory” or Complex Systems (see the class web page at This allowed room in the course for some flexibility depending on what teaching methods worked well for the students.

Complexity needs to be incorporated throughout every engineer’s educational development. The freshmen learning experience discussed in this paper took place in a College of Engineering “Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2005, American Society for Engineering Education”

Peters, W., & Maher, M., & Craig, N., & Addison, V. (2005, June), Integrating Complex Systems Study Into The Freshman Mechanical Engineering Experience Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--15418

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