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Understanding the problem space and drawing diverse engineers in through comprehensive systems thinking




Know the Big Picture to Solve the Big Problems





o you ever look up into the night sky and see a satellite slicing through the darkness of space, reflecting glints of sun back to Earth, and pause for a moment to think about what it took to put that piece of technology in orbit? Whether it’s a satellite orbiting hundreds of miles above you or the car you drive to work every day, the water treatment plant that delivers clean water to your home or the smartphone you can’t be without, you are surrounded by feats of engineering every minute of every day. While in many ways these marvels become invisible because of their ubiquity, they are each brilliant accomplishments that are—and exist within—highly complex systems. When engineers approach a complex problem, they must account for hundreds of aspects of that problem to design a solution. Engineering programs prepare students to consider factors such as timelines, available materials, budgets, and project personnel, but increasingly, engineers are being asked to use “systems thinking” in which they pay particular attention to how each component of a complex system interrelates with all other components. Consider a car, which has over 30,000 parts! Teams of engineers have to think meticulously about how each part interacts within the system. Systems thinking in engineering tends to emphasize the ability to recognize constituent elements (such as how each mechanical part of a car works together in a system), rather than how all these constituent elements are embedded in broader economic, sociocultural, and temporal contexts. Yet all of these must inform decision-making. In the example of the car, an engineer must also consider what roads that vehicle will travel on, how its emissions will affect the environment, the economic impact on the community in which the cars

are assembled, the needs of its passengers, and what the driver who will buy the car already knows about driving. Also important are temporal considerations, such as how the car will be repaired when certain components break and how the car and its parts will be disposed of when it is no longer usable. When engineers fail to consider the context they are designing for, there is a high likelihood that the project will result in the creation of a nonviable product or process. For example, when a group of engineering students from an American college visited an African community, they perceived the smoke produced by firewood stoves to be a major health concern. They engineered an efficient ethanol-fueled smokeless stove. They did not consider the fact that the ethanol was more expensive than wood, or that the community considered the smoke to be a normal part of cooking and didn’t see any health issues. The stoves were never installed. This example underscores the importance of listening to stakeholders, understanding cultural norms, and grasping the sustainability of the resources being used given the geography and economy. The more complex the problem, the more likely it is that engineers will be working on different parts of a system, and the more likely the need to attend not only to the constituent elements of the systems but related contexts. Currently, there is a dearth of research, resources, and assessments to support instructional interventions aimed at preparing engineers to consider the contexts for which they are designing solutions. This unmet need led three researchers at U-M to ask how they can help engineers to account for the complexities of today’s grand challenges. With a grant from the National Science Foundation, higher education professor Lisa Lattuca, engineering

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Michigan Education Magazine Summer 2020  

Michigan Education Magazine Summer 2020  

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