Engineers are called to play an important role in addressing the complex problems of our global society, such as climate change and global health care. In order to adequately address these complex problems, engineers must be able to identify and incorporate into their decision making relevant aspects of systems in which their work is contextualized, a skill often referred to as systems thinking. However, within engineering, research on systems thinking tends to emphasize the ability to recognize potentially relevant constituent elements and parts of an engineering problem, rather than how these constituent elements and parts are embedded in broader economic, sociocultural, and temporal contexts and how all of these must inform decision making about problems and solutions. Additionally, some elements of systems thinking, such as an awareness of a particular sociocultural context or the coordination of work among members of a cross-disciplinary team, are not always recognized as core engineering skills, which alienates those whose strengths and passions are related to, for example, engineering systems that consider and impact social change. Studies show that women and minorities, groups underrepresented within engineering, are drawn to engineering in part for its potential to address important social issues. Emphasizing the importance of systems thinking and developing a more comprehensive definition of systems thinking that includes both constituent parts and contextual elements of a system will help students recognize the relevance and value of these other elements of engineering work and support full participation in engineering by a diverse group of students.
We provide an overview of our study, in which we are examining systems thinking across a range of expertise to develop a scenario-based assessment tool that educators and researchers can use to evaluate engineering students’ systems thinking competence. Consistent with the aforementioned need to define and study systems thinking in a comprehensive, inclusive manner, we begin with a definition of systems thinking as 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. In our study, we seek to address two key questions: 1) How do engineers of different levels of education and experience approach problems that require systems thinking? and 2) How do different types of life, educational, and work experiences relate to individuals’ demonstrated level of expertise in solving systems thinking problems? Our study is comprised of three phases. The first two phases include a semi-structured interview with engineering students and professionals about their experiences solving a problem requiring systems thinking and a think-aloud interview in which participants are asked to talk through how they would approach a given engineering scenario and later reflect on the experiences that inform their thinking. Data from these two phases will be used to develop a written assessment tool, which we will test by administering the written instrument to undergraduate and graduate engineering students in our third study phase. Our paper describes our study design and framing and includes preliminary findings from the first phase of our study.
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