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Measuring the Complexity of Simulated Engineering Design Problems

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

ERM Potpourri

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1140.1 - 26.1140.20



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Paper Authors


Golnaz Arastoopour University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Before becoming interested in education, Golnaz studied Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a minor in Spanish. While earning her Bachelor’s degree in engineering, she worked as a computer science instructor at Campus Middle School for Girls in Urbana, IL. Along with a team of undergraduates, she headlined a project to develop a unique computer science curriculum for middle school students. She then earned her M.A. in mathematics education at Columbia University. Afterwards, she taught in the Chicago Public School system at Orr Academy High School (an AUSL school) for two years. Currently, Golnaz is working with the Epistemic Games Research Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she has led the efforts on engineering virtual internship simulations for high school and first year undergraduate students. Golnaz's current research is focused on how games and simulations increase student engagement in STEM fields, how players learn engineering design in real-world and virtual professional environments, and how to assess engineering design thinking.

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David Williamson Shaffer


Naomi C. Chesler University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Naomi C. Chesler is Professor and Vice Chair of Biomedical Engineering with an affiliate appointment in Educational Psychology. Her research interests include vascular biomechanics, hemodynamics and cardiac function as well as the factors that motivate students to pursue and persist in engineering careers, with a focus on women and under-represented minorities.

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Wesley Collier University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Wesley Collier is a graduate student in learning sciences in the Epistemic Games research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working on the Epistemic Network Analysis tool. He is interested in how games and simulations can be assessed using discourse analysis.

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Jeff Linderoth University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Modeling the Complexity of Structured Engineering Design ProblemsIn an increasingly globalized and technological world, engineering workforces of sufficient sizeand quality are essential for addressing challenges such as climate change, world hunger, andenergy demand. Future generations of engineers will have to identify big problems and designinnovative solutions. To prepare young people for solving challenging issues, researchers andeducators must provide students with environments in which they can participate in authenticengineering design problems.To do so, many engineering curricula include “capstone” courses where senior engineeringstudents engage in authentic design [1]. These courses are developed for more senior engineeringstudents because it is commonly thought that students have the skills to engage in authenticdesign challenges only towards the end of their undergraduate education. In recent years,because of the high attrition rate of engineering majors after the first year [2], some institutionshave implemented courses with design opportunities for first-year students. However, these“cornerstone” courses vary greatly in terms of content and approach [3] since it is not clear howto teach design to students who do not yet have basic engineering skills and knowledge.Thus, a key issue for the field of engineering education is to understand how to create authenticengineering design problems of varying degrees of complexity, so that students can participate inauthentic engineering design throughout their undergraduate careers. There are, of course, manyaspects of an engineering design problem that contribute to its complexity, but we focus on onecritical component of the difficulty of an engineering problem—the complexity of the designfunction.In this paper, we will describe a method for investigating the cognitive and mathematicalstructures of engineering design problems developed for students. Using a virtual design problemfrom a first year engineering course [4] as an example, we identified three components thatcontribute to the complexity of this design problem: (1) the number of design variables, (2) theamount of information students have about the design variables, and (3) the number of solutionsthat satisfy customer requests. Then, we quantified the problem solving process and developed aset of design functions that model real-world design problems with complex, dependentrelationships. This model serves as a basis for measuring and adjusting the complexity ofstructured design problems.References[1] A. J. Dutson, R. H. Rodd, S. P. Magleby, and C. D. Sorensen, “A Review of Literature on Teaching Engineering Design Through Project- Oriented Capstone Courses,” J. Eng. Educ., vol. 86, no. 1, pp. 17–28, 1997.[2] P. A. Daempfle, “An analysis of the high attrition rates among first year college science, math, and engineering majors,” J. Coll. Student Retent. Res. Theory Pract., vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 37–52, 2003.[3] S. Sheppard, M. Engineering, and R. Jenison, “Examples of Freshman Design Education,” Int. J. Eng. Educ., vol. 13, no. 4, pp. 248–261, 2012.[4] N. C. Chesler, G. Arastoopour, C. M. D’Angelo, E. A. Bagley, and D. W. Shaffer, “Design of professional practice simulator for educating and motivating first-year engineering students.,” Adv. Eng. Educ., 2012.

Arastoopour, G., & Shaffer, D. W., & Chesler, N. C., & Collier, W., & Linderoth, J. (2015, June), Measuring the Complexity of Simulated Engineering Design Problems Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24477

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