Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Engineering and Technology Education

Committee Chair(s)

Kurt Becker


Kurt Becker


Doug Holton


Paul Schreuders


Kay Camperell


Oenardi Lawanto


The aim of this research study was to examine high school students' systems thinking when engaged in an engineering design challenge. This study included 12 high school students that were paired into teams of two to work through an engineering design challenge. These dyads were given one hour in their classrooms with access to a computer and engineering sketching paper to complete the design. Immediately following the design challenge, the students participated in a post hoc reflective group interview. The methodology of this study was informed by and derived from cognitive science's verbal protocol analysis. Multiple forms of data were gathered and triangulated for analysis. These forms included audio and video recordings of the design challenge and the interview, computer tracking, and student-generated sketches. The data were coded using Gero's FBS framework. These coded data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. The transitions were further analyzed using measures of centrality. Additionally, qualitative analysis techniques were used to understand and interpret systems and engineering design themes and findings. Through the qualitative and quantitative analyses, it was shown that the students demonstrated thinking in terms of systems. The results imply that systems thinking can be part of a high school engineering curriculum. The students considered and explored multiple interconnected variables, both technical as well as nontechnical in nature. The students showed further systems thinking by optimizing their design through balancing trade-offs of nonlinear interconnected variables. Sketching played an integral part in the students' design process, as it was used to generate, develop, and communicate their designs. Although many of the students recognized their own lack of drawing abilities, they understood the role sketching played in engineering design. Therefore, graphical visualization through sketching is a skill that educators may want to include in their curricula. The qualitative analysis also shed light on analogical reasoning. The students drew from their personal experience in lieu of professional expertise to better understand and expand their designs. Hence, the implication for educators is to aid the students in using their knowledge, experience, and preexisting schemata to work through an engineering design.




This work made publicly available electronically on February 14, 2011.

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