The Historical Roots of the Field of Engineering Systems: Results from an In-class Assignment

Keywords The Historical Roots of the Field of Engineering Systems: Results from an In-class Assignment ESD Working Paper Series historical roots Engineering Systems methodologies knowledge relationships citation analysis engineering pedagogy
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The concept of “apparently deliberate ignoring” refers to a lack of citation or
collaboration where it would be expected. One submission showed the total absence of references between four leaders of system dynamics and five leaders of cybernetics despite their evolution in close proximity. A quote from the open-ended survey results reflects on this unexpected finding, “I was exposed to the complicated relationship (or lack thereof) between Norbert Weiner and Jay Forrester. Despite largely the same subject material, their lack of collaboration is unusual.” In addition to those noted in individual submissions, some interrelations between fields became clear only during the session dedicated to student presentations.

Reading and listening to each assignment gave both students and professors a wider appreciation of the breadth of Engineering Systems and the complex interlinking of its underlying fields. This element of student learning is evidenced by their responses to survey Question #9 (see Figure 1), in which 86% indicated that they learned a lot from listening to their classmates’ presentations. The Importance of Historical Context in the Development of Fields.

Several students noted the importance of historical context in shaping the development of concepts and fields. For example, in their class presentation, one group noted how Euler’s publication in Latin may have slowed the diffusion of his foundational contributions to graph theory. Another student noted, “how different concepts are shaped and forged depending on the historical

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The field of Engineering Systems (ES) is quite young but there
are intellectual roots that go far back in time. At least that is the
working hypothesis in an integrative capstone assignment given in the first doctoral subject for incoming ES PhD students at MIT. The
assignment has been given for four years (2008-2011) and involves pairs of students researching the intellectual connections between a specific historical root and a specific modern ES method. This paper describes the faculty and student perspectives on the assignment, including the perceived learning outcomes, and insights gained into the roots of Engineering Systems. Some overall observations include: •Interconnections among almost all selected topics (whether labeled roots or modern methods) are apparent. Each topic has an extensive time period of unfolding which gives rise to overlap and complex interactions among the topics;
•Herbert Simon’s work appears most pivotal in the roots of
Engineering Systems. Jay Forrester, John von Neumann, Norbert
Weiner and Joseph Schumpeter are also identified along with others as having a significant impact;
•The faculty always learn something about the field from what the
students find even when topics are repeated; and,
•The assignment is a valuable – but not perfect – vehicle for learning about Engineering Systems and for launching budding researchers’ efforts in the field.

Christopher L. Magee, Rebecca K. Saari, G. Thomas Heaps-Nelson, Stephen M.
Zoepf and Joseph M. Sussman
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