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Using Functional Analysis As A Framework For Understanding Technology

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2010 Annual Conference & Exposition


Louisville, Kentucky

Publication Date

June 20, 2010

Start Date

June 20, 2010

End Date

June 23, 2010



Conference Session

Technological Literacy and the Educated Person

Tagged Division

Technological Literacy Constituent Committee

Page Count


Page Numbers

15.1324.1 - 15.1324.17

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Paper Authors


John Krupczak Hope College

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Professor of Engineering, Hope College.
CASEE Senior Fellow, National Academy of Engineering

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

Using Functional Analysis as a Framework for Understanding Technology


While engineers bear responsibility for promoting the general understanding of technology, the means through which this may be accomplished is not well-established. In this work the technique of functional analysis or functional decomposition is adopted as a framework for explaining technological products and systems. Functional analysis is a method used in systems engineering and product design. The overall function of a technical system is accomplished through a series of interacting subfunctions attributed to specific components. The system function is to transform specified inputs into expected outputs. Inputs and outputs are treated as flows of either: material, energy, or information. Each of the engineering disciplines uses the principles of functional analysis in development of their specific technological domains. For example, in broad terms, chemical engineering treats transformation of materials, mechanical engineering treats transformations of energy, while electronics is concerned with flow of information. Each discipline has specialized methods and techniques that are applied to specific hardware components that carry out well-characterized subfunctions. Functional analysis or functional thinking is then recognized as one of the characteristics of the engineering habit of mind or modes of engineering thinking. This technique is well-suited to explaining engineering to a non-engineering audience. The method reflects the type of thinking used by engineers. A prerequisite background knowledge or use of extensive mathematics is not required. The systems perspective is inherent in the technique, underlying scientific principles used in specific components can be incorporated, and there is an evident connection to the engineering design process. The technique is applicable to a wide-variety of technological systems and devices and the method applies to past, present, and emerging technologies. Functional analysis can be taught by any engineering faculty member and helps novice engineers build a knowledge base of components and devices that provide common functions. By drawing attention to the process of function substitution, innovation is readily highlighted. The following discussion includes results from using functional analysis in an introduction to engineering course and with non- engineers in a general education engineering course.


“Capable and confident participants in our technologically-dependent society must know something about engineering,” states the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering.1 In Technically Speaking: Why All Americans Need to Know More about Technology, the NAE stresses the value of being knowledgeable about technology in the twenty-first century.2 Technological literacy is defined in Tech Tally3 as “an understanding of technology at a level that enables effective functioning in a modern technological society.”

Technology in this case is broadly defined as the efforts and products of the various fields of engineering. Technology encompasses any modification of the natural world to fulfill human

Krupczak, J. (2010, June), Using Functional Analysis As A Framework For Understanding Technology Paper presented at 2010 Annual Conference & Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky.

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