Asee peer logo

Understanding Complexity: A Model for Characterizing a Sequence of Design Projects

Download Paper |


2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Studies in Engineering Design

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Nicky Wolmarans University of Cape Town

visit author page

I am currently an "Academic Development Lecturer" in the Civil Engineering Department at the University of Cape Town. The position involves curriculum development aimed at improving student performance and experience in engineering. This has directed my interest in graduate preparedness and led me to focus on design both at first and final year, and also how reasoning between the concrete and abstract can be implemented in disciplinary subjects.

visit author page


Jennifer M. Case Virginia Tech

visit author page

Jennifer Case is Head and Professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. She holds an honorary position at the University of Cape Town. Her research on the student experience of learning, focusing mainly on science and engineering education, has been published across a range of journal articles in higher education and her recent book, Researching student learning in higher education: A social realist approach published in 2013 by Routledge. She holds an academic development post in the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCT, and teaches in the undergraduate programme there. She is a coordinating editor for the international journal Higher Education and a co-editor for the Routledge/SRHE series Research into Higher Education.

visit author page

Download Paper |


Design courses have become an important focus of 'preparation for professional practice' with the shift towards competency-based accreditation of engineering degree programs. However, the bulk of the research published on design projects addresses competencies as they are located within single projects. This paper presents an argument for the need to consider progression across a sequence of projects; an aspect of learning that may be overlooked in investigations of single projects. Although based on the analysis of 17 design projects in three trajectories of design projects, this paper is limited to the presentation of the conceptual model that we developed from the analysis.

Our conceptual model is based on the notion of progression through a trajectory of increasingly complex design projects. We therefore present a means of systematically characterising complexity in design, and provide four example projects as an illustration of the the model.

The study takes a knowledge perspective, and the focus for the study was therefore informed by ABET [1] outcome (a) "an ability to apply knowledge of mathematics, science, and engineering" (p3). While this outcome is usually considered overemphasized in engineering curricula, there is a growing recognition of the intertwined nature of competencies [2], [3], and some reports on engineering education still claim that the application of technical knowledge to solve real industrial problems is the most important, but also the rarest, competency [4]. Social Realism of Sociology of Education [5] is the theoretical framework followed in this study, a framework that argues for the centrality of knowledge [6] as the foundation of other important graduate competencies. The semantics dimension of Legitimation Code Theory [7] provided the conceptual basis for the model.

Based on the conceptual model that we propose we do make some suggestions for structuring sequences of design projects. These suggestions are based on the principles that underpin the conceptual model. They do not claim to prescribe the way that design briefs should be formulated, nor to define how students will engage with the projects. They do however offer ways in which curriculum developers in engineering design might think about progression.

[1] ABET. Criteria for Accrediting Engineering Programs, 2015–2016. 2014 [online]. Available: [2] D.M. Gilbuena, B.U. Sherrett, E.S. Gummer, A.B. Champagne and M.D. Koretsky, “Feedback on professional skills as enculturation into communities of practice,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 104, no. 1, pp. 7-34, 2015 [3] H.J. Passow and C.H. Passow, “What Competencies Should Undergraduate Engineering Programs Emphasize? A Systematic Review”, Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 106, no. 3, pp. 475-526, 2017. [4] J. King, “Educating Engineers for the 21st Century,” The Royal Academy of Engineering. 2007 [5] R. Moore, R, “Social realism and the problem of the problem of knowledge in the sociology of education,” British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 333-353. [6] L. Wheelahan, “Babies and bathwater: Revaluing the role of the academy in knowledge,” in Thinking about Higher Education, P. Gibbs and R. Barnett, Ed. Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2014, pp. 125-137. [7] K. Maton, Knowledge and knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education. Oxon: Routledge. 2014

Wolmarans, N., & Case, J. M. (2018, June), Understanding Complexity: A Model for Characterizing a Sequence of Design Projects Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31173

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2018 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015