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Invited Paper - Embracing complexity in engineering education: A way forward for developing intercultural competency

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2013 ASEE International Forum


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 22, 2013

Start Date

June 22, 2013

End Date

June 22, 2013

Conference Session

Track 3 - Session I - Faculty Development

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Invited - Faculty Development

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21.39.1 - 21.39.8



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Paper Authors


Thomas Lachlan Goldfinch University of Wollongong

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Tom Goldfinch is a lecturer in engineering education at the University of Wollongong. He has worked on engineering education research and development projects since 2006. His key research focus areas are engineering mechanics education, and the social and cultural aspects of engineering education and practice. Tom was recently project leader of an Australian Office for Learning and Teaching funded project Exploring Intercultural Competency in Engineering, which led to the development of a range of learning resources targeting students' development of intercultural competency ( Past projects also include: ALTC project A Pro-Active Approach to Addressing Student Learning Diversity in Engineering Mechanics; A graduate attribute led curriculum review for UTEM, Chile; and the implementation of UoW’s University Learning and Teaching course at ImamU, Saudi Arabia. In 2009 he was awarded a vice-chancellors award for outstanding contribution to teaching and learning in the area of graduate attributes and has published numerous papers on engineering education research and practice.

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Embracing complexity in engineering education: A way forward for developing intercultural competencyAbstractDiscourse surrounding the global nature of the engineering profession has fueled a pushtowards engineering education that prepares graduates to work effectively across foreigncultures and customs1-3. The author argues that while this outward focus is important andnecessary, there is also a need to focus on preparing graduates for cultural issues that willarise much closer to home. Identifying, and working with subtle cultural differences that canoccur in workplaces, organizations and the community, where the population may initiallyappear monocultural, presents unique challenges. The way in which one assumes culturaluniformity in a given situation can contribute to the oversimplification of a problem, andsubsequently the pursuit of ineffective solutions. In a recent project, the author andcolleagues sought to develop educational modules that introduced students, and staff, tostrategies for identifying complexities arising from these subtle cultural contrasts andconflicts. In the process, a model for knowledge management by Kurtz and Snowden4 hasbeen identified that neatly frames the way we approach learning and decision making inengineering education and practice. The framework distinguishes the ways in which oneperceives a problem in terms of its complexity and the strategies employed to solve it. Thispaper describes the applications of this framework to engineering education that focuses ondeveloping students’ intercultural competency. The way this framework has been used todesign learning activities as well as its usefulness for staff training and development areoutlined. The author proposes potential applications of this framework to other areas ofengineering curricula as a way to embrace complexity in learning and teaching and avoidoversimplifying complicated problems.IntroductionGlobalisation, diversification, community engagement, socially responsible, these are all termthat appear often when talking about modern engineering practice. Criteria set byprofessional bodies for accrediting engineering degree programs have set in stone the needfor graduates to think well beyond the technical domains of engineering5. The culturaldifferences students are likely to encounter when working overseas or liaising withcolleagues offshore has placed an emphasis on global competency and international aspectsof intercultural competency. There is now a substantial body of work exploring this area1-3.Many of the considerations relating to working across national boundaries involve clearlyidentifiable, though not necessarily known, differences in cultural norms and work practices.This discussion paper looks at cross cultural interactions from a different perspective. Itexplores the question:How can subtle cultural differences be managed in engineering education and practice?These considerations stem from the authors experience contributing to an Australian Officefor Learning and Teaching funded project, Engineering Across Cultures, abbreviated to EAC.Intercultural competencyIntercultural competency (or cultural competence, intercultural competence, cross-culturalcompetence) has many definitions. Ang and Van Dyne7 define cultural competencesuccinctly as an individual’s capability to function and manage effectively in culturallydiverse settings. Deardorff8 defines it as effective and appropriate behavior andcommunication in intercultural situations. These definitions and many others refer to theterm ‘culture’ in describing what it is to be interculturally competent9. The Author argues thatthis is where the challenge really begins. Definitions of culture range from those that are verydetailed and specific to those that are more general and all encompassing. Hofstede’s fivedimensions of culture is one such definition that is quite specific10: 1. Power/Distance: how inequalities in prestige, wealth and power are handled, within the family, education, work, politics, religion and ideas; 2. Uncertainty Avoidance: how uncertainty about the future is handled, with artifacts addressing the uncertainties of nature; laws (rules), the behaviour of others; and religion, what we do not know; 3. Individualism/Collectivism: what the relationship is between the individual and the collective; 4. Masculinity/Femininity: what gender role patterns are, and how highly differentiated the roles are; 5. Long-term/Short-term Orientation: whether the focus is on gratifying short-term needs or responding to longer term social and moral obligations.Another more general definition states that culture encompasses ‘socio-political factors (e.g.socio-cultural history, government and laws, religion, etc.) as well as familial and communalcustoms, norms, beliefs, opinions and rituals’11. The different definitions all highlight thecomplexity of culture as a concept. It involves deep-seated beliefs and practices that arelargely shared with others within a cultural grouping. It is important to note that the literaturearound culture rarely associates culture with nationality. This is where interculturalcompetence is differentiated from global competence.The EAC project explored academics’ understanding of intercultural competence through aseries of workshops with engineering educators in Australia. An outcome of these workshopswas to develop a set of simple statements from participants own understandings aboutculture, drawing from the definitions above. These statements define culture in simple terms,and relate this to intercultural competency, and then on to the challenges that will be faced byengineering graduates. It was clear from this process that engineering educators also saw thedistinction between culture and nationality, and the result was the following three statements: Culture: Values, beliefs and behaviors Intercultural Competency: Appreciating, respecting and adapting to other values, beliefs and behaviors and working with differences Challenges faced by graduates: Identifying and understanding values, beliefs, and behaviors of one’s self and othersAn educational approachThe educational approach developed in the EAC project focused on the third of thestatements above, the challenges faced by graduates. Identifying and understanding culture isenormously challenging. Equating culture with nationality certainly makes the process ofidentifying cultural differences simpler. Other research has indicated that students are moreconfident in judging their own levels of cultural competence (their perceived level ofknowledge and skill about other cultures) when cultural differences can be aligned withdifferences in nationality12.The learning modules developed within the Engineering Across Cultures project sought totake students beyond the culture as nationality paradigm. The modules address the issue ofidentifying cultural differences within one’s own country, and in some cases, within aworkplace. Variation theory in learning suggests that development of new understandings isdependent on observing differences between what is known and what is new13-14. Forexample, understanding the concept of color requires the observation of many differentcolours. When differences in culture are subtle, that is, there is limited variation,understanding the attributes of culture that contribute to behavior and actions is difficult.Hence, understanding culture and its impact on behavior and other outcomes when a studentmay be overly familiar with, or even embedded within that culture presents some interestingchallenges.To help identify cultural issues and their impacts, the EAC approach breaks down discussionsabout cultural issues in engineering into cultural contexts. The materials developed by theproject cover five cultural context found in engineering education and practice identified bythe project team: 1. Living culture – Developing awareness and understanding of how engineering fits into social contexts 2. Workplace culture – Seeing how workplace cultures evolve and their effect on work practices 3. Community culture – Engaging with community issues that engineers often encounter 4. Technical/cultural demands – Exploring links between technical and cultural requirements in design and practice 5. Culture in the classroom – Identifying students’ priorities and cultivating a classroom learning culture that is open and accepting of new ways of thinking (for the educator).In many of the case studies and scenarios presented in the EAC modules, few have a ‘correct’or ‘best’ solution. The modules do not attempt to guide students towards what the resourcedevelopers believed is an optimum solution. Rather, the modules instead aim to structurelearning to encourage students to identify unknowns, in terms of cultural differences, anddevelop strategies for dealing with them. The approach takes a distinct departure fromcontent focus and instead seeks to guide students towards a level of comfort with uncertaintyand complexity.Getting comfortable with complexityThe EAC resources were structured around a theoretical framework originally designed as aknowledge management concept. The Cynefin Domains of Knowledge4, originated fromorganizational research at IBM and is presented in Figure 1. The model, as used in thisengineering education context, clarifies the way in which people seek out and deal withknowledge in different situations. While the Authors understanding and explanation of themodel may differ slightly from that of the original authors, it is considered in this paper onlyas it relates to engineering education. The model uses the idea of cause and effectrelationships to explore five different conditions that may be found at different times induring the learning process. These conditions have informed the structure of activities foreach of the EAC teaching modules. Figure 1 The Cynefin Domains of Knowledge (Kurtz & Snowden, 2003)Traditional education mainly focuses on the ‘ordered’ domains on the right. The ‘visibleorder’ exists where there are known cause and effect relationships that can be used to easilypredict an outcome. One such example is the layout of a traditional tiered lecture theatre.Students walk in to the room with the understanding that the lecturer will present from thefront, and that there is a good chance that their role in the class will be that of a passivelearner. They are there to listen, take notes, or alternatively, spend some time on facebook.The ‘hidden order’ exists when causes and effects are not known initially, but can beidentified, understood and repeated. This condition may exist in that same lecture theatrewhere the lecturer effectively utilizes active lecturing strategies. In this scenario studentswalk into the room with a certain expectation of their role in the class that is subsequentlyupset by the teaching approach of the lecturer. Never the less, this new approach can beunderstood over the course of the first class. This means that the order is knowable, and willbe anticipated in the next class taught by that lecturer. Other examples of the ‘hidden order’include the introduction of technical engineering concepts in a tutorial class. The causes andeffects in this case are concepts, procedures and correct solutions that are discovered underthe guidance of a teacher (i.e. lab classes, simple engineering mechanics problems).The two ‘un-ordered’ (an interesting word play on the paranormal idea of the ‘un-dead’ – notalive, not dead but somewhere in between) domains are where the approach used in the EACmodules on intercultural competence are targeted. The ‘complex’ domain describesconditions where the relationship between cause and effect is difficult to predict, and mayonly make sense after an event has occurred. These situations are common in engineeringeducation and practice, where events occur that have not, and could not be perfectly plannedfor from the outset. Effectively dealing with this complexity requires continual observation ofthe progress of a project or educational activity and appropriate readjustments to theapproaches used to ensure the desired outcome. Competence in this domain is particularlyimportant for anticipating challenges, and putting in place strategies for dealing with issues asthey arise. In terms of the lecture theatre scenario, imagine a class of students who areanticipating an active lecturing approach and met with a very passive chalk and talk style.This is likely to lead to unrest among students and without anticipating this scenario andhaving strategies for dealing with it on hand, the lecturer may lose control of the class. TheEAC modules encourage students to become comfortable in the complex domain byproviding case studies or scenarios of events that have already occurred in engineeringprojects. In these case studies, subsequent investigations have identified workplace culturesor other cultural practices as having led to the event. Students are required to analyze thefactors at play and develop possibilities for how a workplace or community culture hasevolved and contributed to the event, and then propose strategies for managing thesepossibilities in future scenarios.The fourth domain is ‘chaos’. Conditions of chaos exist where there are so many factors atplay that the relationship between cause and effect is impossible to determine with anycertainty. Effectively managing chaos requires one to first recognize that conditions of chaosexist. Then, using the best judgment available, one must simply take action and observe theoutcome. While the EAC modules deal mostly with the complex domain, students areencouraged at certain points, where the best course of action for dealing with a scenario isunclear, to simply discuss the situation with their peers and make a decision.Overall, the EAC approach keeps students within the un-ordered domains by posingengineering challenges involving intercultural interactions and using a simulation style. Thechallenges simulate those encountered in engineering practice where students need to workwith incomplete information. Activities in each module encourage them to work justsufficiently beyond current levels of knowledge so as to stretch their capabilities forabsorbing, managing and responding to new information - and develop their self-confidencewhile doing so.The fifth and very important domain is the shaded area in the middle of figure one. Thisregion is referred to by Kurtz and Snowden as ‘Disorder’. It is often the starting point atwhich the relationship between cause and effect is not known to the student. It is importantthat students recognize when they are in this situation, not knowing whether the way forwardis ordered or un-ordered. Failing to move from this region of the model to the appropriatedomain can lead to distress and a retreat to inappropriate or ineffective strategies for dealingwith the situation. To illustrate, this is similar to what can be observed in complex politicaldebates where participants create an overly simplistic understanding of cause and effect in theordered domains as opposed to the more appropriate, but less comfortable ‘un-ordered’domains. The result is ineffective policy decisions. In the EAC materials, this reaction isavoided by providing students with just enough guidance to recognize complexity or chaos inthe scenarios and identify patterns. These patterns help students to understand the underlyingculture that may be contributing to the outcome of the scenario.The Cynefin Domains as a staff development toolIn developing the EAC materials, exploring the Cynefin Domains model and runningworkshops with engineering academics, the author noted other potential applications of themodel. Complexities in large engineering projects, academic research and even theorganizational structures within which academics operate are commonly recognized andaccepted. However, the same is not always true of students and academics views onengineering education. Views on the learning and teaching process often involve faultprojected on others, oversimplification of the responsibilities of students and educators, andapproaches to teaching and study that do not respond to the complicated and inconsistentnature of learning needs15-16. In the world of business administration, there is a growingunderstanding of the need for business models to be flexible and responsive to marketdemands in increasingly complex environments. Kelly and Alison17 propose an approach tomanaging business that embraces complexity, rather than trying to predict and meet marketdemands. The outcomes of such approaches can be seen in the runaway success of new typesof consumer products such as smart phones that allow users to customize the functions of thedevice to meet their needs. Businesses operating successfully in this domain are clearlycomfortable in the un-ordered domains.Many of the more traditional approaches that are common in engineering educationencourage students to remain in the ordered domains of knowledge through textbook styleproblems and ‘correct’ solutions to design scenarios. These approaches most certainly havetheir place in engineering education, the fundamentals are important, and there is often a rightand wrong answer. However, in implementing the EAC modules, the project team frequentlyencountered academics seeking to impose these types of approaches when dealing withintercultural competency. It was also evident from early staff reactions that the staffthemselves did not view the educational process as existing within the un-ordered domains.Embracing complexity is not only an issue for students, it is of key importance for staff.For this reason, in preparation for the implementation of the EAC modules in a first year(freshmen) design subject, the Cynefin Domains have been utilized to great effect as a staffdevelopment tool. Staff were encouraged to consider the classroom as a complex system,where it is possible to anticipate cause and effect (teaching an learning) but that it is notpossible to predict outcomes absolutely. This approach has led to a greater level ofacceptance of the need for flexibility in teaching approaches and to plan alternative strategiesfor explaining ideas and facilitating learning activities. The effect of this approach in staffdevelopment has not been evaluated externally. However, the invitation extended to theauthor from the design subject lecturer and tutors to redevelop the entire subject around thisapproach gives some cause for optimism about its usefulness as both an educational designand staff development tool.Where to next?This discussion paper has presented some of the author’s experiences in addressing thechallenging area of Intercultural Competency in engineering education. In the process ofaddressing this challenge, an educational model has been identified that is rarely seen inengineering education research and development. The usefulness and alternative applicationsof the Cynefin Domains model have been discussed in the interest of sparking wider interestin the model among engineering educators. It is hoped that this framework, used as aneducational design and staff development tool to help engineering education continue tobreak away from traditional approaches to embrace complexity in the classroom.References1. Thomas, D.C. and K. Inkson, Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business. 2004, San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.2. Lohmann, J.R., H.A. Rollins, and J.J. Hoey, Defining, developing and assessing global competence in engineers. European Journal of Engineering Education, 2006. 31(1).3. Becker, F.S., Globalization, curricula reform and the consequences for engineers working in an international company. European Journal of Engineering Education, 2006. 31(3).4. Kurtz, C.F. and D.J. Snowden, The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a compex and complicated world. IBM Systems Journal, 2003. 42(3).5. Australia, E., Stage 1 Competency Standard for Professional Engineer. 2011: Melbourne, VIC.6. Commission, A.E.A., Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs. 2011, Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology: Baltimore, MD.7. Ang, S. and L. Van Dyne, Handbook of Cultural Intelligence: Theory, measurement and applications. 2008, Sharpe, M.E.: Armonk, NY. p. 391.8. Deardorff, D.K., Assessing Intercultural Competence. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2011. 149.9. Spitzberg, B.H. and G. Changnon, Conceptualizing Intercultural Competence, in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence, D.K. Deardorff, Editor. 2010, SAGE: Thousand Oaks, CA.10. Hofstede, G., Culture's Consequences (2nd edn.). 2001: Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.11. Matsumoto, D., Reflections on culture and competence, in Culture and competence: contexts of life success, R.J. Sterberg and E.L. Grigorenko, Editors. 2004, American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.12. Goldfinch, T., et al., Intercultural competence in engineering education: who are we teaching?, in Australasian Association of Engineering Education Annual Conference. 2012: Melbourne, VIC.13. Marton, F. and S.A. Booth, Learning and Awareness. 1997, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.14. Thune, M. and A. Eckerdal, Variation theory applied to students' conceptions of computer programming. European Journal of Engineering Education, 2009. 34(4).15. Goldfinch, T., A. Carew, and G. Thomas, Students Views on Engineering Mechaincs Education and the Implications for Educators, in Engineering Education: an Australian Perspective, S. Grainger and C. Kestell, Editors. 2011, Multi-science Publishing: Brentwood, UK.16. Pomales-Garcia, C. and Y. Liu, Excellence in Engineering Education: Views of Undergraduate Engineering Students. Journal of Engineering Education, 2007. 96(3).17. Kelly, S. and M.A. Allison, The Complexity Advantage. 1999, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Goldfinch, T. L. (2013, June), Invited Paper - Embracing complexity in engineering education: A way forward for developing intercultural competency Paper presented at 2013 ASEE International Forum, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--17244

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