The following article has been sent by a user at AUBURN UNIVERSITY MONTGOMERY
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Authors: Kate Gibney
Start Page: 18
Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Mar 1998
[IMAGE PHOTOGRAPH] Captioned as: How engineering educators help students
unlock their creative potential.
Despite investors' skepticism, young engineer Henry Ford steadfastly believed
in the future of automotive technology, eventually getting the backing
he needed to finance the Ford Motor Company in 1903.
Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright never formally graduated from high school,
but imagination and an abiding passion for machinery helped them succeed
in conducting the world's first powered, sustained, and controlled airplane
flight in 1903.
Law enforcement officers can thank Stephanie Louise Kwolek for the Kevlar
in their bullet-resistant vests; it belongs to a branch of then-unknown
crystalline polymers she discovered while experimenting with ways to make
stronger, stiffer fibers at DuPont in the 1960s and 1970s.
hen asked to identify creative individuals, people like Henry Ford, Wilbur
and Orville Wright, and Stephanie Kwolek spring to mind. As inventors,
they represent qualities commonly associated with creativity courage,
curiosity, and a capacity for diverg;ent thinking. As engineers, they rank
among many who have shaped the field's history.
Engineers bring mathematics and science to bear on practical problems,
molding natural materials and harnessing technology for human benefit.
Creativity is often a key component in this synthesis; the spark motivating
efforts to devise solutions to novel problems, desing new products, and
improve existing practices. In the competitive marketplace, it's a crucial
asset in the bid to win the race to build better machines, decrease product
delivery times, and anticipate the needs of future generations
But what is creativity? The examples set by Ford and other inventors offer
some insight. Psychology provides a number of alternative descriptions.
University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines creativity
as any act, idea, or product that changes or transforms and existing domain
(field). Howard Gardner, a psychologist and education professor at Harvard
Univeristy, describes a creative person as someone who can regularly solve
a problem, or develop something novel and valuable in a given domain. Creativity
consultant Edward de Bono, who has held academic positions at Oxford and
Cambridge Univeristy, points to the search for alternatives as the very
essence of creativity. In their book Creative Problem Solving: Thinking
Skills for a Changing World (McGraw Hill, 1995), Monika Lumsdaine, visiting
scientist at Michigan Technological University, and Edward Lumsdaine, dean
of the university's engineering college, define creativity as the act of
playing with imagination and possibilities that leads to new and meaningful
connections and outcomes.
There may be no definitive definition, but creativity clearly involves
the development of something new that proves to be useful. This process,
explained in greater detail in "The Creative Process" on page 22, begins
with idea generation and ends with implementation. Psychologists stress
that to qualify as creative, an idea does not have to rank up there with
inventing the wheel. As Thomas Edison once said, an idea need be original
only in its adaptation to the current problem.
Because the ability to generate fresh approaches and products is key to
engineers' professional success, several engineering schools explicitly
promote the relationship between creativity and the engineering process.
This article looks at four of those programs. The educators involved use
different methods, but share the same goal: Open students' minds to their
own creative potential.
RENSSELAER POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE
The Art of Problem Definition
Burt Swersey, lecturer in mechanical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute (RPI), firmly believes that engineers who have not been encouraged
to be creative tend to fall back on obvious solutions, instead of developing
something novel. Swersey recommends that engineering professors teach students
to focus first on what they want to accomplish and then to work to find
innovative ways to achieve those goals. He and the other professors who
teach sophomore-level Introduction to Engineering Design (lED) at RPI
on creating an educational environment that inspires students to do just
Each semester, IED student teams tackle a different open-ended project.
Last fall, students built devices that challenged the limits of sports
and recreational activities. Previously, they have designed systems to
improve learning in mathematics, science, and engineering, and addressed
the problem of auditorium classroom cleanliness.
Swersey and the other professors who teach IED prefer open-ended projects
because they have no "right" answer, Swersey says. This forces students
to examine the situation critically and assess what needs to be done rather
than what they think they can do. Swersey ascribes to the philosophy of
Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who believes creative thinking involves
two components: courage and critical thinking.
To help students develop courage, Swersey and the other lED professors
show them videos of past lED projects and concentrate on being supportive
throughout the semester. To stress critical thinking, they teach students
a seven-step methodology for creative product development. The steps are:
1. Define the problem. To define the true problem, one must overcome the
tendency to settle for the obvious, Swersey says. For instance, at the
first meeting of the lED class assigned to improve the cleanliness of auditorium
classrooms, Swersey gave the students 20 minutes to devise an "innovative"
solution to the problem. Twenty minutes later, they all told him an automated
night mopping system would do the job. But when Swersey pushed them a little
harder, the students realized that this would not suffice. Analyzing the
situation critically, they realized that while the classrooms would be
clean for the first morning classes, they would be dirty soon afterward.
Students who had the misfortune of having late afternoon classes would
still have to cope with cluttered, dirty spaces. Once the students realized
this, they understood the real problem Swersey had asked them to solve:
Design a device or system that keeps classrooms clean all day.
2. State objectives. At this point, student teams articulate what they
would like to accomplish regardless of feasibility. In addition to the
traditional approach of listing objectives, Swersey and the other professors
encourage them to use a variety of visual thinking techniques to represent
their ideas. Working with a software package called Inspiration, students
create tree diagrams, flow charts, and concept maps. The software can convert
these visual representations into conventional outlines.
3. Establish functions. Teams create a list and then construct tree diagrams
of their product's desired functions. They then break down three or four
of these major functions (such as the need to provide power or control
an operation) into subfunctions. For example, to figure out how to provide
power, students must consider several things, such as how to use stored
4. Develop specifications. Working with their tree diagrams, teams establish
measurable target specifications, such as miles per gallon or rate of
for each subfunction.
5. Generate multiple alternatives. Once students reach this point, Swersey
and the other professors employ a number of different techniques to help
them explore alternatives. For example, students develop mechanical, electronic,
and hydraulic structures capable of accomplishing the same task; they also
experiment with reverse functions, such as making something designed to
push, pull instead. Role-playing exercises help them think about the problem
from a customer, salesperson, or manufacturer's point of view. Morphological
charts give students a glimpse of their product's theoretically possible
forms. A morphological chart starts out as a grid of empty squares. The
product's functions are listed down the lefthand side, the means of achieving
those functions across the top. The columns do not strictly relate to one
another since there can be multiple ways of achieving a given function.
6. Evaluate alternatives. Teams construct quick prototypes to assess the
advantages and disadvantages of selected designs, using criteria based
on customer needs to help them resolve which design to finalize.
7. Build. In this final phase, teams construct their devices, which are
exhibited in a campus open house conducted at the end of each semester.
In addition to assignments related to this seven-step methodology, Swersey
and the other professors also work with students to develop their teamwork
skills. At the beginning of the semester, students complete a questionnaire
that queries them about their strengths and interests. Swersey and the
other professors use their responses to group students into teams. To help
develop communication and cooperation skills, Swersey facilitates discussions
of the five keys to group success developed by Daniel Goleman, author of
Emotional Intelligence: rapport, empathy, persuasion, cooperation, and
ability to reach consensus. In one of these sessions, students watch a
clip from the television show Seinfeld in which George continually dismisses
Elaine's solutions to a problem. "The kids are amused," Swersey says, "but
they quickly figure out the same thing goes on in an unproductive team."
Swersey's students are not the only ones who benefit from his efforts.
Swersey and several other faculty members are involved in RPI's Creativity
Initiative. An interdisciplinary effort, the initiative brings together
engineering educators and professors from other departments to develop
improved methods for teaching creativity. In June 1996, the initiative
sponsored a two-day creativity workshop that brought Goleman; Marvin Minsky;
John Mayer, a pioneer in the emotional intelligence field; and representatives
from the Synectics consulting firm to campus. This month, Swersey; William
Foley, IED course coordinator; and Larry Kagan, another initiative member
and chair of RPI's arts department, will present a workshop on teaching
innovation at the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance's
annual conference. (For more information about other workshops devoted
to creativity, see "Creativity Workshops" on page 23.)
A Creative Student Think Tank
William Rifle, a manufacturing systems engineering professor at Kettering
University (a cooperative education institution formerly known as GMI
and Manufacturing Institute), spent 20 years working in industry before
moving to academe. That experience, he says, showed him that "the success
of small- to medium-sized companies depends largely on the creativity of
the employees to make product and production decisions." Yet when Riffe
began teaching sophomore-level Introduction to Design at Kettering in 1985,
he encountered students who did not seem to have the necessary creativity
skills. Riffe says the problem lay in the fact that "most formal engineering
training focuses on teaching students to be able to reproduce what has
been done before rather than on the ability to create the new." To address
this gap, Riffe designed a course called Engineering Creativity. The first
offering of the course in January 1987 attracted five students. Today,
about 75 to 100 seniors take it each year.
The 11-week course begins with lectures on the brain and neurophysiology.
Riffe uses the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument to help students understand
their own thought processes. The instrument, a technique developed by creativity
trainer and consultant Ned Herrmann, assesses which combination of the
brain's four quadrants an individual tends to use. Students then explore
the various social, emotional, physical, and experiential filters through
which they funnel information and examine how those filters influence their
decisions. Role-playing exercises developed from Roger von Oech's book
A Kick in the Seat of the Pants (Harper & Row, 1986) introduce them to
the four roles von Oech believes people play in the creative process-explorer,
artist, judge, and warrior. (In von Oech's framework, the explorer searches
for new information and resources, the artist transforms resources into
new ideas, the judge evaluates ideas, and the warrior puts ideas into action.)
Rifle assigns homework, such as writing a personal mission statement, to
get students thinking about how creativity can help them accomplish their
goals. Other projects, such as finding new uses for common items like
paperclips, and rubber bands, encourage students to use their creative
After teaching Engineering Creativity for several years, Rifle wanted to
allow students to apply their creative problem-solving skills in an industrial
context. To that end, he organized a student think tank in 1991 called
HICUPS (Human Intelligence Used Creatively for Unique Problem Solving).
The think tank tackles projects industrial clients bring to Riffe. Clients
pay a small fee for HICUPS's services, and students earn one credit for
participating. The projects require student teams to develop innovative
concepts or features but not necessarily to build the finished product.
In 1996 the Hurley Children's Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center
in Flint, Michigan, contracted HICUPS to generate ideas for new therapy
devices for neuro-muscular challenged children. The center was so impressed
with one of the team's concepts that it asked students to build a prototype.
The Wobbler, a flat circular board with a pivotal center attached to an
inner tube, helps children with cerebral palsy strengthen abdominal muscles
and learn balance and coordination. To use the device, children sit or
stand on the circular board and lean on an upright T-shaped support that
attaches to the pivotal center. A digital voice chip instructs them to
move their feet to different sections of the carpeted board. For instance,
when they step on the black square with a white question mark, a digital
voice chip instructs them to "Find the yellow button."
Focus on the Three Ps
One Saturday this past fall, senior Lucas Frank and approximately 20 other
mechanical engineering majors at Purdue University spent five hours in
a strategic planning session designed to help them develop personal mission
statements, goals, and objectives for their work in ME 493-The Creative
Process in Engineering. The session started with a pillow fight, "just
to loosen things up," Frank says. The students then spent 20 minutes creating
artistic representations of their mission statements and 30 minutes lying
on the floor doing a visualization exercise. Their facilitator, Purdue
mechanical engineering professor Victor Goldschmidt, instructed them to
imagine how they would get to work on an average day in 2007, where they
would be working, what they would be doing, and what the people around
them would be like. After half an hour, Frank and the other students drew
pictures of what they had imagined.
While it may seem out of the ordinary, this sequence of events is par for
the course in ME 493. Goldschmidt, known to his students in the class as
V.G., first developed the idea for a creativity course while on sabbatical
in 1989. Believing that "to be viable in the engineering profession, students
need to develop skills that will allow them to go beyond `training,"'
designed the course to take students out of the typical "given problem.
. .find-solution" realm and to encourage them to tap into their creativity.
Goldschmidt's students study psychological theories of creativity and the
creative process. They also review the common blocks to creativity, such
as the tendency to use two-dimensional thinking. Goldschmidt has them create
puzzles that illustrate these blocks. The puzzle devised by student Michael
Laughton and his team stymies people who tend to use two-dimensional thinking
and to assume that all the pieces are part of the solution. The puzzle-seven
pieces of cardboard-has to be assembled as a cube. A cube has only six
sides, of course, but it wasn't obvious from the pattern that the puzzle
was 3-D," Laughton explains.
Goldschmidt also introduces students to various strategies for tapping
into their own creative potential. He encourages them to create artwork,
write poetry, and keep dream journals. In one dream analysis exercise,
students list the prominent images from one of their dreams and then free-write
associations to those images. Dan Greene, a mechanical engineering senior
who took the class this past fall, says this exercise "made the meaning
of the dream clear. It was fascinating to see what imagery my mind was
using to convey a message to me. What I would have dismissed as a weird
dream turned out to be a very insightful experience." Students in ME 493
must use their dreams to solve an engineering problem before the semester
Responding to industry's emphasis on teamwork, Goldschmidt also teaches
a series of lessons that illustrate how group dynamics affect the creative
process. He uses role-playing exercises to help students develop the ability
to read and use body language, which enables them to function more effectively
in future team situations. Exercises in a variety of corporate creativity
techniques, such as synectics, give students a sense of how groups can
work together creatively.
Synectics focuses on the act of mentally taking things apart and putting
them back together as a means of furnishing new insights. The term comes
from the Greek word synectikos, which means "bringing forth together" or
"bringing different things into unified connection." Synectic theory uses
trigger mechanisms to catalyze new thoughts. One of these synectic triggers
is empathizing, which involves putting yourself in place of the subject.
For example, in one exercise Goldschmidt asks students to imagine that
they are wet clothes in a dryer and then to describe the experience. Thinking
about drying in this way can lead to new insights about the process and
how to improve it. Lucas Frank, imagining the water being sucked from clothes,
suddenly found himself wondering if a vacuum rather than hot air were not
a better way to approach drying. "I would not have thought about it that
way unless I had not been forced to describe drying from a different
Otherwise, you just start with the assumption of a drum and hot air."
Ultimately, the work students do in ME 493 builds on the understanding
that engineering "involves the three Ps: people, products, and profits,"
Goldschmidt explains. "Products continue to be improved, and in some instances
new products emerge as the outcome of a creative process. Engineering without
creativity runs the risk of becoming self-duplicating-if not dead-technology,"
Nurturing the Right Side of the Brain
Rolf Faste, director of Stanford University's product design program, believes
"real engineering involves working on open-ended and often interdisciplinary
problems that have no 'right' answers." To solve these types of problems,
engineers, particularly design engineers, must be able to draw on "the
mathematical skill and knowledge of the scientist as well as the intuition
and qualitative sensitivity of the artist," Faste says. This philosophy
underlies both the undergraduate and graduate levels of the Stanford program,
which is part of the mechanical engineering department. At the graduate
level, product design is a joint offering of mechanical engineering and
Unfortunately, Faste relates, many engineering students do not feel connected
to their artistic side. In fact, he says, "most engineering students are
convinced that they are entirely left-brained [analytical]. My job is to
get them to see that they like everyone else have a whole brain to work
The human brain has two separate hemispheres, left and right, which are
joined by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum. Different types
of thought processes are concentrated in various specialized locations
in the brain. For example, linear, logical processes and verbal abilities
tend to reside in the left hemisphere while visual-spatial abilities and
simultaneous 'gestalt' processes tend to reside in the right. All activities
benefit from integrated use of both cerebral hemispheres. When stressed,
however, people often fall back on using their dominant hemisphere. Faste
explicitly designed one of his graduate-level courses, Ambidextrous Thinking
(undergraduates take a similar course called Visual Thinking), to teach
students how to use their whole brain to create things. Ambidextrous Thinking
introduces graduate engineering students to a variety of techniques to
help them tap into their right brains. Like Purdue's Victor Goldschmidt,
Faste encourages dream analysis and synectics. He also thinks that it is
important that students be able to draw well enough to capture their ideas.
By assembling storyboards and mind maps students begin to chart their own
thought processes and to gain a greater understanding of how they generate
ideas, where ideas come from, and the areas of potential they are failing
to utilize. While Faste acknowledges the importance of intellectual skills,
he also teaches students not to neglect another important resource-their
bodies. In this effort, he draws on the techniques and philosophy generated
by the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Developed by Paul Dennison in
the 1970s, educational kinesiology (or Edu-K) involves the use of movement
to integrate the functions of various parts of the brain and thereby optimize
learning. Students in Ambidextrous Thinking experiment with improvisational
dance and improvisational drama, which integrates movement and role playing.
The goal of all Ambidextrous Thinking activities is to provide students
with what Faste describes as a "toolbox" of approaches and strategies designed
to stimulate whole brain thinking.
Undergraduates put those skills to the test in a course Faste teaches called
Advanced Product Design: Conceptualization. "To be creative," Faste says,
"students need more than skills, they need a good problem to work on."
The Advanced Product Design course literally sends them out into the world
to discover those problems. In conjunction with readings on social issues,
students spend several weeks doing field work in a variety of public and
private settings. For the past several years, Faste with the help of June
Fisher, a project director at San Francisco General Hospital, has arranged
for students to spend time working with physicians and staff members at
the hospital, observing how medical equipment and other products are put
to the test. This experience, Faste says, teaches students to develop designs
that take into account the aesthetic sensibilities and requirements of
human users. It also gets students to begin conceptualizing what products,
services, and systems workers in particular environments will need in the
future. Many students develop these budding ideas into quarter-long senior
projects or year-long master's theses, with some students even launching
a marketable product. For example, Perry Klebahn worked on an innovative
snowshoe design for his master's project in 1990. After graduation, Klebahn
took his design and founded the Atlas Snowshoe Company. Today, Atlas is
a multimillion dollar business that ranks among the nation's leading snowshoe
In the Final Analysis: The Value of Creativity Developing creative thinking
is not a new objective for engineering education. Research and techniques
developed in the 1950s and 1960s by Arthur Koestler, Abraham Maslow, Carl
Rogers, John Arnold, William Gordon, and other psychologists and educators
stimulate many of the educators involved with today's creativity classes.
As Rolf Faste and others point out, however, the enormous changes wrought
by the end of the Cold War have sparked renewed interest in the subject.
In the 1990s, innovation is the name of the market game, and consumer products
are the focus. Industry not only asks engineers to produce novel products,
processes, and systems; it requires them to meet demand at lower costs,
within shorter design cycle time frames, and to take into account consumer
product issues like environmental impact.
For this reason, educators like Jim Adams, professor of industrial engineering
and engineering management at Stanford University and the author of Conceptual
Blockbusting and The Care and Feeding of Ideas (Addison-Wesley, 1986),
believe that the engineering education system must make an effort-as the
programs at RPI, Kettering, Purdue, Stanford, and others have done-"to
offer students opportunities to exercise the styles of thinking associated
"Creative engineers win in life," Adams explains. "Educators need to ensure
that students not only develop the necessary skills and strategies but
become comfortable in situations with high uncertainty and no 'right' answers."
The Creative Process
Psychologists use a number of different terms to identify the phases of
the cre ative process, but they all essentially break the process down
into five basic stages.
Stage One Immersion.
Tackling a problem in any field requires knowledge. Before developing his
theory of relativity, Albert Einstein spent years studying physics to understand
the basic tenets of the field. The length of time this stage consumes depends
upon the problem. Regardless, it invariably involves an active search for
relevant information and a broad range of data.
* Stage Two: Incubation.
After immersing themselves in the specifics of a problem, creative problem
solvers banish it from their conscious mind and let the unconscious mind
take over. Psychologists argue that people are most likely to make unusual
connections or unexpected combinations during this stage because they are
not processing information in a logical or linear fashion.
* Stage Three: lnsight
This stage is frequently called the eureka! or aha! moment because of the
sudden flashes of understanding most commonly associated with it. These
flashes surface from the unconscious mind and can occur at any time.
* Stage Four Evaluation.
Once an insight occurs, creative problem solvers have to determine whether
that vision has value and is worth pursuing. If they decide the idea has
merit, they proceed to the next stage.
*tage Five: Elaboration.
This stage involves translating sudden insight into a product. Like the
first stage in the creative process, elaboration can take anywhere from
hours, to days, to years. Charles Darwin, for example, spent almost a lifetime
working with his insights to develop the theory of evolution. Usually,
the elaboration process involves additional periods of incubation that
produce new flashes of insight.
Psychologists ultimately describe the creative process as recursive. At
any one of these stages, a person can double back, revise ideas, or gain
new knowledge that reshapes his or her understanding. For this reason,
being creative requires patience, discipline, and hard work.
A variety of U.S. organizations sponsor workshops and other creativity-related
programs. Some of these efforts are designed specifically for engineering
educators; others address a wider audience of education professionals.
Following are two examples.
* Stanford Uniersity Workhop on Creativity in Engineering Education
Offered each summer since 1989, this two-week workshop targets engineering
educators specifically. Team-taught by Rolf Faste, director of Stanford's
product design program, and Stanford mechanical engineering professors
Bernard Roth and Douglass Wilde, this seminar explores ways to foster educators'
creativity. Using exercises, projects, and group-process techniques, Faste,
Roth, and Wilde introduce professors to strategies that can unlock their
own creative potential and revitalize teaching methods to better stimulate
students' creativity. To date, more than 100 engineering professors have
participated. This year's workshop, limited to 26 participants, will take
place August 17-28. Tuition costs $2,000. For more information, contact
Kristin Burns at Stanford's mechanical engineering department, (650) 7234288;
* The Creatve Problem Solving Institute
During the week of June 21-26, the Creative Education Foundation will sponsor
its annual Creative Problem Solving Institute. Conducted at the State University
of New York at Buffalo, Amherst campus, the institute features several
concurrent instructional programs. The Springboard program explores key
concepts of creative problem solving. The Leadership Development segment
provides advance training in facilitating creative problem-solving groups.
The General Facilitation program teaches techniques to help groups and
individuals achieve their goals. The Extending session looks at how creative
thinking applies to a wide range of topics. The Youth program offers two
groups of young people (ages nine to 13 and ages 14 to 17) skills in leadership,
creative thinking, and problem solving. Those who cannot allocate the time
for the entire week have the option to design their own program that starts
Sunday and goes through Wednesday noon. For more information, contact the
Creative Education Foundation, 1050 Union Road, #4, Buffalo, NY 14244,
(716) 675-3181; fax (716) 675-3209; e-mail: cefhq@cef cpsi.org.
Kate Gibney is assistant editor of ASEE PRISM.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.
Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
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