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Recipe For Complexity: A Freshman Learning Experience

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2003 Annual Conference


Nashville, Tennessee

Publication Date

June 22, 2003

Start Date

June 22, 2003

End Date

June 25, 2003



Conference Session

Outreach and Freshman Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

8.973.1 - 8.973.14



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Paper Authors

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Nadia Craig

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Michelle Maher

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Walter Peters

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

Session 1701

Recipe for Complexity: A Freshman Learning Experience

Nadia Craig*, Michelle Maher**, Wally Peters* * Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of South Carolina/ **Department of Educational Leadership and Policies, University of South Carolina


We live in a world in which we are starting to understand the complexities of the systems we “engineer.” Our understanding of the complexities of engineered systems is rapidly increasing because science has given us a better understanding of the complexities of life itself. The freshman learning experience discussed in this paper is an attempt to introduce engineering freshmen to representative concepts presented in classical simple engineering systems and to expose them to an understanding of complex system concepts through critical thinking and experiential learning.


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.

A course for first semester honors engineering students was designed to address this needed change from a simple systems approach to a more complex systems approach. 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.3 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. “Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2003, American Society for Engineering Education”

Craig, N., & Maher, M., & Peters, W. (2003, June), Recipe For Complexity: A Freshman Learning Experience Paper presented at 2003 Annual Conference, Nashville, Tennessee. 10.18260/1-2--11796

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