Systems Thinking, Systems Design and Learning in Engineering Education

The purpose of this paper is to explore how educating engineers in systems thinking and systems design requires an approach to teaching and learning in which the purpose is to achieve competence in systems thinking rather than to acquire specialised subject knowledge, abstracted from its socio-technical context.

We report on a pilot study of fourth year engineering students in a 'Sustainable Systems' teaching unit, who undertook an assessment of their own learning power prior to their assignment, and a sub sample who undertook a post-test to measure change. Indeed, the purpose of the study was to explore and develop a systems architecture or design for the sort of learning system which best facilitates systems thinking and systems designing in student Engineers.

Rather than beginning with pre-defined abstract, subject knowledge, the students begin with an engineering problem in a particular territory or a place, and develop a systems architecture, a holistic way of defining that territory, which facilitates synergy as well as analysing performance.

In order to do this, students need to be able to uncover the different knowledge systems through which their territory can be perceived and known, and explore the different parameters and measurements which can be applied to them. Such 'systems architecting' cannot be achieved through rote learning, or the cognitive application of pre-defined knowledge, since by definition the solution to the problem to be solved is not known in advance.

Rather it depends on the ability to learn, and to progress through a formative, dynamic learning process which draws on higher order creative and critical thinking that begins with experience and observation and concludes with a product which is a unique application of knowledge for a particular engineering purpose.

The approach presented in this paper outlines what can be understood as 'learning design principles' which support the development of semantic web applications, through the application of learning power and knowledge structuring processes.

The pilot study demonstrates that students who successfully undertook an assignment requiring the development of a systems architecture increased in the strategic awareness – a key dimension of learning power. This small pilot study makes a contribution to the debate about the education of Chartered Engineers characterised “by their ability to develop appropriate solutions to engineering problems, using new or existing technologies, through innovation, creativity and change”

To read more of this external content, download the complete paper from the author online archives at LearningEmergence.net.

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