Erin A. Cech

Defining and Assessing Systems Thinking in Diverse Engineering Populations

Research Project Description
Shanna Daly, Lisa Rose Lattuca, Brian E. Gilchrist, Seth David Guikema, Erin A. Cech

Defining and Assessing Systems Thinking in Diverse Engineering Populations
Overview. Policy makers, employers, and scholars emphasize the importance of systems thinking?a holistic approach to problem solving in which linkages and interactions of the immediate work with constituent parts, the larger sociocultural context, and potential impacts over time are identified and incorporated into decision making (Hayden, 2011; JHU, 2016; NAE, 2004; Rebovich, 2004). In addition to systems thinking being a core engineering skill, programmatic attention to systems thinking is also linked to students? development of other core engineering competencies. Evidence from a national study of undergraduate engineers showed that curricular emphasis on systems thinking was positively related to students? reports of design and interdisciplinary skills (Lattuca, Knight, Ro, & Novoselich, forthcoming; Lattuca, et al., 2015). Although there has been increased attention to systems thinking in engineering education, research has yet to provide guidance on how these skills can be fostered. Of the work that exists, few studies offer clear and comprehensive definitions that can be translated into instructional interventions and practical assessment tools. Additionally, the majority of research on systems thinking in engineering tends to emphasize recognition of potentially relevant elements in a problem space (e.g., Senge, Bahill & Gissing, 1998; Frank & Elata, 2005), but does not examine the consequences of such awareness. Several studies focus on students? ability to identify relevant contextual elements, a core engineering competency emphasized in the ABET criteria, but contextual awareness is largely overlooked in existing definitions of systems thinking. Thus, empirical investigations have not yet considered how students? awareness and recognition of the elements of a comprehensive definition of systems thinking, inclusive of the constituent parts of a problem and the larger sociocultural and temporal context, affects students? engineering decision making.

Intellectual Merit. Our study is focused on defining and assessing systems thinking across a range of expertise and understanding the experiences that contribute to this expertise. Our research expanding how systems thinking is conceptualized within engineering addresses a need for a consistent, inclusive definition of systems thinking within engineering that accounts for constituent parts, the larger sociocultural context, and potential impacts over time in which all engineering work is situated. Further, it is an important conceptual contribution key for being able to assess this critical skill. Research suggests a number of personal and academic experiences may be related to individuals? awareness of or aptitude for various elements of systems thinking and thus are 1) important to examine to understand more about how systems thinking expertise is developed and 2) potentially important to making engineering education and the engineering workforce more diverse in a number of ways. An expanded definition of systems thinking within engineering, inclusive of contextual awareness, may help make engineering work more appealing to those who may not consider engineering because of it seeming lack of incorporation of elements beyond the immediate problem and solution. Our research is guided by the following questions:
1. How do engineers of different levels of education and experience approach problems that require systems thinking?
a. How do they define the problem and solution contexts? How do they attend to these contexts as they solve a problem and develop solutions?
b. What causal connections do they identify? How do they attend to these connections as they solve a problem and develop solutions?
2. How do different types of life, educational, and work experiences contribute to individuals? demonstrated level of expertise in solving systems thinking problems?

Broader Impacts of the Pro

National Science Foundation

Funding Period: 9/1/2017 to 8/31/2020

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