A phenomenographic study of how aerospace engineers experience uncertainty when making design decisions

Antonette T Cummings, Purdue University


This study investigated the qualitatively different ways in which engineers working in aerospace-related industries experience uncertainty as they make design decisions. This study provides insight on how engineers increase their ability to manage various forms of uncertainty as they design large scale complex engineered systems. The results of this study are valuable for understanding learning trajectories of engineers beyond their academic experiences and for linking the professional and technical skills in industry to the undergraduate engineering learning experience. Phenomenography, a qualitative research methodology, was employed to solicit varied experiences. Previously published literature on design, expertise, teaming, uncertainty, and decision-making informed the semi-structured interview. The twenty-five participants were interviewed; their professional experience ranged from senior design students to individual contributors in private industry to director levels of responsibility, across corporations of sub-suppliers, suppliers, and end users. The literature also provided ways to describe and validate the results of the analysis. The analysis produced five categories of experience of uncertainty in design decisions which follow the trend of previously identified design expertise levels. There is a dimension of quantity and quality of uncertainty that implies degree of design complexity, another dimension of skill in team engagement, and a third dimension, by which the categories are named, of an individual’s personal response to encountering uncertainty. The categories follow the metaphor of a material’s increasing response to stress: Brittle, Plastic, Tolerant, Robust, and Resilient. These categories provide complementary insight into the necessity of building large and trusted teams of people as part of an engineer’s strategy for designing complex systems with varied forms of uncertainty. The critical elements that participants identified in their design experiences allows engineering educators to develop learning interventions to simultaneously enhance a student’s understanding of designing complex systems and of strategically engaging in teamwork. This study also supplies engineering educators with more detailed insight into student’s possible emotional responses to uncertainty as they engage in designing complex systems. Overall, the impact of this study is to equip educators and students to take on the grand challenges of engineering design in more comprehensive ways.




Oakes, Purdue University.

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