Prism Magazine - March 2003
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Teaching Toolbox

Thinking Outside The Textbook

- By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz      

Creative thinking needs to be part of the every student's education.

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 shelves.


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

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