Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Technology Education

Committee Chair(s)

Kurt H. Becker


Kurt H. Becker


M. Scott DeBerard


John S. Gero


Oenardi Lawanto


Edward M. Reeve


The purpose of this research was to investigate the differences of using problem decomposition and problem recomposition among dyads of engineering experts, dyads of engineering seniors, and dyads of engineering freshmen. Fifty participants took part in this study. Ten were engineering design experts, 20 were engineering seniors, and 20 were engineering freshmen. Participants worked in dyads to complete an engineering design challenge within an hour. The entire design process was video and audio recorded. After the design session, members participated in a group interview.

This study used protocol analysis as the methodology. Video and audio data were transcribed, segmented, and coded. Two coding systems including the FBS ontology and “levels of the problem” were used in this study. A series of statistical techniques were used to analyze data. Interview data and participants’ design sketches also worked as supplemental data to help answer the research questions.

By analyzing the quantitative and qualitative data, it was found that students used less problem decomposition and problem recomposoition than engineer experts in engineering design. This result implies that engineering education should place more importance on teaching problem decomposition and problem recomposition. Students were found to spend less cognitive effort when considering the problem as a whole and interactions between subsystems than engineer experts. In addition, students were also found to spend more cognitive effort when considering details of subsystems. These results showed that students tended to use depth-first decomposition and experts tended to use breadth-first decomposition in engineering design. The use of Function (F), Behavior (B), and Structure (S) among engineering experts, engineering seniors, and engineering freshmen was compared on three levels. Level 1 represents designers consider the problem as an integral whole, Level 2 represents designers consider interactions between subsystems, and Level 3 represents designers consider details of subsystems. The results showed that students used more S on Level 1 and 3 but they used less F on Level 1 than engineering experts. The results imply that engineering curriculum should improve the teaching of problem definition in engineering design because students need to understand the problem before solving it.