TABLE 5-1 Engineering Concepts in the Categories of Systems and Optimization




Multiple variables*

Emergent properties*







Physical laws


Social constraints


Cultural norms


Side effects

*Related empirical research on K–12 students is available on these concepts.

published about the development of domain-specific concepts, some of them closely connected to particular engineering disciplines (e.g., statics), in K–12 students. In fact, with the exception of students who enroll in higher level math and physics courses in high school, very few K–12 students are even exposed to these concepts. Based on Silk and Schunn’s (2008) review of relevant literature, which includes national and international content standards in technology education and engineering, the concepts that are common to most areas of engineering include structure-behavior-function (SBF); trade-offs, constraints; optimization; and system, subsystem, and control. The discussion of the concepts is divided into two categories: systems and optimization. As depicted in Table 5-1, the majority of empirical research on systems focuses on the concepts of SBF and emergent properties (i.e., behaviors that emerge from dynamic interactions among system components). Most of the research on optimization is on multiple variables and trade-offs.


The concept of a system relates to how individual components of an object or process work together to perform a function. The analysis and design of systems is central to engineering, the purpose of which is to modify surroundings to achieve particular purposes. Engineers may focus on the role and performance of individual parts, subsystems, or levels in a system, or they may highlight the boundaries and interactions between a system and its surrounding environment. Thus the concept of a system has many aspects

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