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Thinking in Terms of Systems through Engineering Design

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Engineering Design in Pedagogy

Tagged Divisions

K-12 & Pre-College Engineering and Design in Engineering Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1520.1 - 22.1520.23



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Paper Authors


Matthew D. Lammi Utah State University

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Matthew did his post-doctoral research with the National Center for Engineering and Technology Education at Utah State University. He will be starting an assistant professor position in the STEM Education Department at North Carolina State in the fall.

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Thinking in Terms of Systems through Engineering DesignRationaleThe essence of engineering is design. Design may yield an artifact, system, or process to realizean opportunity or to satisfy a problem. Engineering design is complex and typically set within asystem that may be interwoven into other systems. Furthermore, engineering designs are oftennon-linear, iterative, and contain multiple interconnected variables. Therefore, thinking in termsof systems in engineering design is a required skill for the successful engineer’s tool box.The aim of this research study was to understand high school students’ systems thinking whenengaged in an engineering design challenge. Specifically, emerging qualitative themes andphenomena related to systems thinking in engineering design were explored and analyzed.Methodology and TechniquesThis study included 12 high school students. The students were paired into teams of two to workthrough an engineering design challenge. These dyads were given one hour in their classroomswith access to a computer and engineering sketching paper to complete the design. Immediatelyfollowing the design challenge, the students participated in a post hoc reflective group interview.The methodology of this study was informed and derived from cognitive science’s verbalprotocol analysis. In this research study we gathered multiple forms of data and triangulatedthese data in our analysis. These forms included audio and video recordings of both the designchallenge and the interview, computer tracking, and student generated sketches. Additionally,qualitative analysis techniques were used to understand and interpret systems and engineeringdesign themes and findings.Themes and FindingsThrough the qualitative analysis, it was shown that the students demonstrated thinking in termsof systems. The results imply that systems thinking can be part of a high school engineeringcurriculum. The students considered and explored multiple interconnected variables that weretechnical as well as non-technical in nature. The students showed further systems thinking byoptimizing their design through balancing trade-offs of non-linear interconnected variables.Sketching played an integral part in the students’ design process as it was used to generate,develop, and communicate their designs. Although many of the students recognized their ownlack of drawing abilities, they understood the role sketching played in engineering design.Therefore, graphical visualization through sketching is a skill that educators may want to includein their curricula. The qualitative analysis also shed light on analogous reasoning. The studentsdrew from their personal experience in lieu of professional expertise to better understand andexpand their designs. Hence, the implication for educators is to aid the students in using theirknowledge, experience, and pre-existing schemata to work through an engineering design.

Lammi, M. D. (2011, June), Thinking in Terms of Systems through Engineering Design Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18784

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