Engaging Complexity and Contradiction - Understanding Formula SAE Teamwork Through Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

Engaging Complexity and Contradiction - Understanding Formula SAE Teamwork Through Cultural-Historical Activity Theory

Michael Jones

Engineering education is in flux with respect to curriculum design and delivery. Traditional models based on the passive reception of information and decontextualized exam-based assessment do not squarely address the development of non-technical “soft” skills necessary for professional practice, raising the concern of accrediting agencies and industry leaders requiring graduates with such skills.

Facing similar problems 50 years ago, medical education began to adopt a problem-based learning (PBL) approach to medical education. PBL encourages student-led investigation of applied problems, aided by faculty who play a facilitative and advisory role (Savery, 2006).

This paper investigates the emergence of a similar approach in the applied sciences. Unlike medical education, engineering project-based learning is structured around broad, integrated design goals, and often requires significant sustained effort by a larger group of students (Bédard, Lison, Dalle, Côté, & Boutin, 2012; Kolmos, 1996).

To support engineering PBL, professional associations have sponsored student design competitions where teams of motivated students engage in a given activity structured by specific rules and deadlines set forth by the governing body. Over some years, these student teams develop into knowledge-based organizations (Choo, 2006) that face information management challenges similar to those faced in industry, and must develop both technical and managerial skills to resolve a complex web of sociotechnical challenges.

This paper uses cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) as a theoretical frame to understand how student engineering PBL teams approach their work. CHAT is founded in human agency and activity, but situates that agency in social and historical forces that often operate in contradiction (Engestrom, 1987). CHAT provides a multimodal and complex lens to highlight and examine these contradictions, and has been used in a range of information management contexts (e.g., Allen, Karanasios, & Slavova, 2011; Wilson, 2009).

One particular context will be studied in depth in this paper – Formula SAE (FSAE) automotive racing, so named after the sponsoring professional Society for Automotive Engineers. FSAE is an international engineering competition with over 500 university teams participating in over 10 competitions worldwide. FSAE team members leverage their formal studies along with other sources of information to design, manufacture, test and race an open-wheeled racecar.

This paper outlines early results from dissertation research, based on discussions with FSAE students, alumni faculty advisors and competition officials on common points of contradiction in the FSAE workcycle. It is hoped that through exchanging experiences of team challenges in the development and refinement of their cars, respondents will inform better practices to the complex challenges faced by FSAE team members and leaders face. It is hoped this approach may eventually shape further research of sociotechnical challenges in similar engineering student PBL teams.

Proceedings of the 11th International CDIO Conference, Chengdu, China, June 8-11 2015

Go to top