Creative thinking needs to be part of the every
Good teachers know that textbook knowledge only goes
so far toward solving real-world problems. Students will need fresh
ideas and original thinking to tackle challenges. And it's our
responsibility as educators to help them develop these skills. So if—as
Albert Einstein said—imagination is more important than knowledge,
why do we wait until the open-ended problems of the senior capstone
design course to encourage creativity in our students? We should
start helping students to think creatively when they come to us as
wide-eyed freshmen. Here are some ways we've found to nudge the
creative process along:
Break out of the one-and-only answer rut. The more ideas
students have, the more likely they are to have good ones. So, when
students solve classroom or homework problems, encourage them to generate
a large number of creative or novel solutions, evaluate them critically,
and discard the bad ones.
Use creative thinking techniques and games. Brainstorming
is an excellent way to get students thinking in more creative ways.
Be sure everyone contributes when you use this technique, and don't
criticize no matter how outlandish the idea. Write everything down,
so the ideas can build on one another. And ask questions that
get at subtle points. For example, TV weather forecasters sometimes
say it has to warm up to snow. Is this true? Why? Have
students discuss the question in small groups or ponder it overnight.
Asking how nature does something, asking "what
if" questions, fantasizing about magical solutions, and looking
for the worst-case scenario are ways to trigger creative thinking.
Use games and puzzles, particularly mathematical puzzles, so that students
have fun while they learn.
Be careful not to punish creativity. A creative
solution probably won't be as polished as a standard, regurgitated
one. It is also unlikely to follow the same steps that a standard solution
would. So use different criteria to score these creative answers because
using the same grading templates might punish a student's creative
problem solving with a lower grade.
Use Edward deBono's PMI method to point out flaws
without rejecting creative ideas. Discuss Positive aspects, Minuses,
and Interesting features that can be adapted to other designs. Fear
of failure can be a major block to creative thinking, so let students
know it's OK if initial designs fail. Encourage them to
look for multiple solution paths and multiple answers.
Introduce creativity with projects and research. A creative
project that can be adapted to any course is Rich Felder's "generic
quiz" (Chem. Engr. Educ., Fall 1985, p. 176). We use this project
at Purdue by asking students in their first chemical engineering course
to develop a novel homework problem. This two-week group project is
worth 10 to 15 percent of the course grade. A group that uses real
data and develops a unique problem with a correct solution can earn
an A. If the problem is similar to problems in the book but the
data is from other sources, the highest possible grade is a B. Problems
similar to those in the textbook using data from the text merits a
maximum grade of C. Students do the project at the end of the
semester to bring together the different elements in the course. After
a semester of solving problems, they find developing a unique problem
to be a fun challenge but are usually surprised at how difficult it
is. To control freeloading, students evaluate what percentage
of the project grade teammates deserve. Assigned instead of a final
exam, this project generates more enthusiasm and is an opportunity
to practice team and communication skills.
Creative students won't come from boring classes
and tedious assignments. We can make problems more than mere exercises
and show them that the best solutions are seldom found on dusty library
Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary engineering
and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering
at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications
specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can
be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.