Ill-structured problems stimulate innovative engineering design. These problems inherently require exploration by those charged with their understanding and solution, and descriptions of that exploratory process typically emphasize the social nature of effective design (Bucciarelli, 2003). Consistent with explorations of the social nature of design, the practical reasoning needed for design implies that there is not an expectation for a single right answer. E.g., every proposed response must be contingently evaluated. Its satisfactoriness is assessed in light of the details known and the problem as currently understood. (Kallenberg, 2013). Consequently it is part of the designer’s responsibility to explore the problem space, and build the case for (or against) the design proposed.
The skillsets necessary for managing ill-structured problems require more than linear rationality. Acknowledging this should impact the learning objectives for developing engineers. Consider the two dominant metaphors for learning: learning-as-acquisition and learning-as-practice (Sfard, 1998). Due to the nature of engineering knowledge (Frezza, 2014), and particularly, the aims of being an engineer, we as engineering educators should focus on learning-as-practice more often.
This is remarkably important for creative exploration of problems. Creative solutions are often demanded of engineers (Radcliffe 2005), and it is known that certain habits of mind can increase a person’s likelihood of creative output, both as an individual or as a collaborator (Sawyer 2011). Similarly, creativity plays an essential role in exploring and solving ill-structured problems.
We have largely ignored teaching students everyday habits that will enhance their work as engineers / designers. We show them how to do individual problems step by step, but do not discuss ways to enhance their overall ability to come up with creative solutions, including finding new ways to formulate the problem (another way to phrase this is to spend more time on problem-finding), learning to view the problem from multiple perspectives (Chi, 1997), and drawing on the disparate expertise of others, the key to a positive collaboration (Sawyer, 2007). We propose a reframing of engineering design education around these principles.
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