Complex systems: What are they and why should we care?

Nadia Kellam, Joachim Walther, Ashley Babcock

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Recently, engineering education research has begun to implicitly employ a discourse of complex systems with terms such as emergence, adaptability and flexibility permeating the discussions. This paper proposes that complex systems offer a unifying perspective for engineering education researchers and will help the discipline move towards a better understanding of the enterprise of engineering education. To explore this issue, the authors will first describe the major characteristics of complex systems and then evaluate whether engineering educators are indeed describing the attributes of engineering education systems as aligning with those of complex systems. Illustrative examples will be provided that show how the framework of complex systems promotes a better understanding of the some of the discrepancies and tensions within the discourse of the engineering education community. This preliminary document analysis research project involves a review of editorials in engineering education journals published in 2008 to determine whether these contributions by the leaders in the engineering education research community are pointing towards a need for a complex systems approach to engineering education practice and research. Specifically, this research explores the validity of the following hypothesis: complex systems provide a needed unifying perspective for engineering education. The preliminary research analysis answers the following research question: To what degree doleaders in engineering education intentionally or implicitly use concepts and language of complex systems when describing current and desired engineering educational systems? While this research is focusing on whether the engineering education is indeed a complex system, future research will be needed that takes a complex systems approach through developing methodologies and models so that researchers can begin to develop a deeper understanding of the nature of the engineering educational system and how to begin to facilitate changes in that complex system in practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes
Event2009 ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition - Austin, TX, United States
Duration: Jun 14 2009Jun 17 2009


  • Adaptability
  • Complex systems
  • Emergence
  • Flexibility

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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