Systems thinking, systems design and learning power in engineering education

P. Godfrey, R. Deakin Crick, S. Huang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Educating Engineers in systems thinking and systems design require an approach to teaching and learning in which the purpose is to achieve competence rather than to acquire specialised subject knowledge, abstracted from its socio-technical context. Such an approach is structured by context-driven enquiry, supported by learning power, positioned at the interface of knowledge generation and use, and grounded in a commitment to sustainable development. 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 cannot be known in advance. Rather it depends on the ability to learn, and to progress through an open-ended, formative, dynamic learning process. It is framed by a selected purpose, fuelled by learning power (including creativity, meaning making, curiosity and resilience) and cogenerated through knowledge structuring processes. It begins with experience and observation and concludes with a product which is a unique application of knowledge for a particular engineering purpose. One of the challenges of technology enhanced learning is how to integrate learning design in an architectural framework which leverages mobile, social and 'big' data to enhance the processes and social relationships of learning, rather than simply providing information or evaluating outcomes. 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. A 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" (UK Engineering Council).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)112-127
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Engineering Education
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Creativity
  • Engineering education
  • Identity
  • Knowledge structuring processes
  • Learning architecture
  • Learning power
  • Systems designing
  • Systems engineering
  • Systems thinking

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