A phenomenographic study of the ability to address complex socio-technical systems via variation theory

John A Mendoza Garcia, Purdue University


Sometimes engineers fail when addressing the inherent complexity of socio-technical systems because they lack the ability to address the complexity of socio-technical systems. Teaching undergraduate engineering students how to address complex socio-technical systems, has been an educational endeavor at different levels ranging from kindergarten to post-graduate education. The literature presents different pedagogical strategies and content to reach this goal. However, there are no existing empirically-based assessments guided by a learning theory. This may be because at the same time explanations of how the skill is developed are scarce. My study bridges this gap, and I propose a developmental path for the ability to address the complex socio-technical systems via Variation Theory, and according to the conceptual framework provided by Variation Theory, my research question was “What are the various ways in which engineers address complex socio-technical systems?” I chose the research approach of phenomenography to answer my research question. I also chose to use a blended approach, Marton’s approach for finding the dimensions of variation, and the developmental approach (Australian) for finding a hierarchical relationship between the dimensions. Accordingly, I recruited 25 participants with different levels of experience with addressing complex socio-technical systems and asked them all to address the same two tasks: A design of a system for a county, and a case study in a manufacturing firm. My outcome space is a nona-dimensional (nine) developmental path for the ability to address the complexity in socio-technical systems, and I propose 9 different ways of experiencing the complexity of a socio-technical system. The findings of this study suggest that the critical aspects that are needed to address the complexity of socio-technical systems are: being aware of the use of models, the ecosystem around, start recognizing different boundaries, being aware of time as a factor, recognizing the part-whole relationships, make effort in tailoring a solution that responds to stakeholders’ needs, find the right problem, giving voice to others, and finally be aware of the need to iterate




Oakes, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Science education|Systems science

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