Neuroscience for Engineering Sustainability: Measuring Cognition During Design Ideation and Systems Thinking Among Students in Engineering

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Virginia Tech


Sustainability is inherently a complex problem that requires new ways of thinking. To solve grand challenges such as climate change, environmental degradation, and poverty, engineers cannot rely on the same models of thinking that were used to create these problems. Engineering education is therefore critical to advance sustainable engineering solutions. Improving education relies on understanding of cognition of thinking and designing for sustainability. In this thesis, a nascent neuroimaging technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) was used to measure cognition among engineering students thinking about sustainability. fNIRS provides an opportunity to investigate how sustainability in design influences cognition, and how different concept generation techniques help students consider many aspects related to sustainability. The first manuscript provides evidence that engineering students perceive sustainability in design as a constraint, limiting the number of solutions for design and decreasing the cognitive efficiency to generate solutions. Senior engineering students generated fewer solutions than freshmen, however, seniors were better able to cognitively manage the sustainability parameter with higher cognitive efficiency. The second manuscript investigates the cognitive difference when generating concepts using concept listing or concept mapping. The results indicate that concept mapping (i.e. intentionally drawing relationships between concepts) leads to more concepts generated. An increase in concepts during concept mapping was also observed to shift cognitive load in the brain from regions associated with process sequencing to regions associated with cognitive flexibility. This research demonstrates the feasibility of fNIRS applied in engineering research and provides more understanding of the cognitive requirements for sustainability thinking.



cognition, Sustainability, functional near-infrared spectroscopy, neuroimaging, engineering education, interdisciplinary, Design, systems thinking