Postprint version. Published in Proceedings from the 38th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference: Saratoga Springs, NY, October 22, 2008.
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Since the 1990's blue-ribbon commissions on engineering education have called for educators to graduate engineers who are capable of systems thinking. However, there is sparse information on how to cultivate this type of cognitive development. How do we develop and measure systems thinking? In this paper, we present the first of a series of methods that we are piloting to initiate the systems thinking process. This exercise, developed by Checkland and Scholes and called "Rich Pictures," requires the participant to express a reality in terms of images and connections between these images. We utilized the Rich Pictures exercise in combination with an appreciative inquiry strategy in pursuit of an initial research hypothesis regarding the impact of project-based learning on female students. We only partially answered our initial question, but the exercise unexpected yielded enthusiastic participation by the students and a rich set of data regarding unanticipated factors that influenced students' learning. The value of the activity is that it initiates the process of thinking non-linearly, an important first step in students' cognitive development for systems thinking.