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Expanding the Mind


The cliché of creative scientists has been put forth throughout history—the Einsteinian wild hair, locked in a room for days at a time, mumbling to themselves, not paying attention to their grooming or hygiene, eating sporadically, lost in a fog of their own thoughts, working diligently until the “ah-ha” moment of discovery.

Creativity, or its semantic cousins innovation and invention, is not easily defined. It is not logical, certainly not a process that comes about in an ordered, sequential, step-by-step fashion. Many creative thinkers have found success by being forced to work outside conventional norms, sometimes mocked by their associates and corporate managers. Creativity seems to be a process that is based upon a notion of exclusion: ideas not embraced by the establishment. Whether it is called “serendipity” or “thinking outside the box,” inventive engineers have the unique ability to look at one set of problems and come up with a solution no one else sees.

Throughout the history of creative scientific endeavor, the No. 1 trait that seems to be common among creative thinkers is their perseverance in solving a problem. Despite the common image of the lone inventor, the other factor in the inventing process seems to be the ability to work in collaboration with others. While genius and creativity are certainly innate abilities, collaboration and diligence can be learned.

The burning question for many engineering schools is whether these abilities that support creativity can be taught. In the national economic and political realm, engineers are asked to come up with “the next big thing.” With so many lower-level tech jobs moving overseas, the solution is to come up with new technologies that will keep America’s preeminence in the world of innovation. But can one simply turn on the switch and make a creative engineer?

There is no easy answer to that question. Yes, engineering schools can provide the environment to foster creative thought. But, no, you can’t take any student who writes computer code and magically turn him or her into the creator of “the next big thing.”

The theory that engineering schools can teach creativity is controversial. Many schools attempt to give students opportunities to flex their creative muscle in design classes and through special projects. But one of creativity’s defining characteristics is the desire to change the status quo, an attribute not often prized by rigid educational systems designed to teach basic scientific principles.

“Without creativity we are nothing,” John Lienhard, professor emeritus of mechanical engineering and history at the University of Houston, wrote recently. “But when we step off those unexpected side roads that intersect the main arteries of our thinking, we are not welcome. Change is a threat to the world around us...The cultural daemon within us poses a threat most people want to see sealed off.”


Browse through any engineering school Web site and find its mission statement. Many of these will say how the school “fosters creativity and innovation” among its students. Virtually everyone agrees that creativity and innovation are hallmarks of a proper engineering education. How to teach these two has almost as many answers as there are practitioners.

The traditional school of thought holds that an engineering education should impart to students basic scientific tools: heat transfer equations, understanding loads in buildings, and principles of electronics. Students then find their way to apply those principles creatively. The new school holds that engineering, by its very nature, is the creative application of scientific principles, and an engineering education without real coursework in how to be creative does a disservice to students and the profession.

America has a global competitive advantage in invention and creativity. Thomas L. Friedman, writing recently in the New York Times, points out America’s role in engineering creativity: “America is the greatest engine of innovation that has ever existed, and it can’t be duplicated anytime soon, because it is a product of multiple factors: Extreme freedom of thought, an emphasis on independent thinking, a steady immigration of new minds, a risk-taking culture with no stigma attached to trying and failing, a noncorrupt bureaucracy, and financial markets and a venture capital system that are unrivaled at taking new ideas and turning them into global products.”

But, again, can this be taught or even “fostered?” Are there skill sets that maximize creative potential? Are there some students who are innately more creative than others? “The problem is that we tend to think of creativity as something that is fuzzy and magical,” says Carlos Santamarina, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech who has written about and studied teaching creativity. “There are skills that can be learned…every student can be more creative, better at problem solving and invention, if they are aware of their own creativity and how to improve it. It’s like any other cognitive skill, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

The problem, as always, is one of balance. Writers and poets are creative people, but nobody would want them to design a bridge or an electrical grid. Good engineering courses can be fun, but fun lessons do not necessarily create competent engineers. Creativity is important, but it must be tempered with critical thinking. For many professors who teach creative thinking—either in design classes or courses in invention—those two concepts are not in opposition.



One of the first exercises Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Venture Program, gives students in her “Creativity and Innovation” class is writing a “failure résumé.” The process, Seelig says, is to make students more aware the role of risk taking in the creative process.

“Students are so used to framing their lives in successes,” Seelig says. “But the creative process is about trying new solutions, using failure as a step to real innovation and problem solving. The failure résumé allows each student to look at failure as part of the process. They might write, ‘I screwed up in this class because I was spread too thin’, or ‘I made assumptions in this case’, or ‘I didn’t listen to other ideas very well.’

“Where this comes into play is that we focus on open-ended problems that have many right answers,” Seelig continues. “We also know that the students will have to come up with solutions that don’t work before they come up with ones that do. They get comfortable where they look at problems and search for creative solutions. The attitude becomes not searching for one right answer but considering many right answers.”

One of the projects Seelig’s students work on every year is what to do about the silverware in the school cafeteria so that the food staff doesn’t waste energy and money washing all the forks and knives and spoons every day. Some of the solutions are obvious: issuing utensils to each student and requiring they keep them clean, making them disposable, maybe even edible. But the solutions might also focus on the food: perhaps make every food a burrito to be eaten with hands or maybe serve all the food on skewers.

Dave Rice, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Tulane University, also uses the no-right answer approach in trying to teach creativity. Teams of his students break into brainstorming groups that come up with all the uses for a simple item, such as a red rubber ball. Rice also likes to put students into pairs: One is to come up with ideas and the other to keep the first talking in an effort to clarify his or her thinking.

“As a professor, you can feel ineffective some times,” Rice says. “Most students coming into these classes are afraid of making mistakes. Their entire educational experience is to come up with the right answer. For creativity to take hold, you need to have them invest in a chance to experiment. Try a few things and break a few things.”

Projects that encourage open-ended problem solving—and the willingness to fail—are the keys to teaching creative behavior. In some ways, this is the antithesis of many of the courses engineering students take. In an atmosphere where right answers are the goal, the notion that failure is to be embraced, not avoided, is a difficult belief to encourage. Yet teaching students to try new solutions and fail seems to be one of the key building blocks in teaching creative thought.

Larry Edwards, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia, teaches several courses that focus on creative skills. He gives his students a survey that asks them to list creative people and creative professions. He then asks them to list intelligent people and intelligent professions. On the creative side of the ledger, students usually list painters, writers, entertainment personalities, and artists. Those listed as intelligent are usually scientists like Newton or Einstein, maybe a business person like Bill Gates, or a political leader like Thomas Jefferson.

“The students list every occupation under the sun, but on neither side, with the exception of Thomas Edison, do you get the name of an engineer,” Edwards says. “We don’t make heroes out of engineers like they do in physics. Most of our students don’t know the names of people who are doing exciting things in engineering.” Edwards says that studying engineers who have succeeded in creative invention is part of the process of teaching creativity.

Edward believes in problems with no correct answers and also uses open-ended problem sets. Additionally, he has students keep design notebooks, personal journals, and sketchbooks. These tools are used for students to observe human behavior and systems and think of ways to improve them.

One assignment has the students find 10 ways to improve getting into and out of a car. “We ask them to imagine getting in and out of their own car, and to watch people getting in and out of car,” Edwards says. “They see that some people are old, and have trouble. Some people have to almost rotate to get into it. We talk about movable steering wheels, seats going backwards and forwards, gull wings as doors. Then we talk about the elderly, women in skirts, handicapped. This makes them think about everyday experiences.

“One of the things students and professors have to get away from is that everything about engineering is equations,” Edwards says. “Learning creative design is learning an art, not a science. Having said that, I will probably be shot by some of my colleagues.”



The relationship between art and science, and their intersection in creative engineering techniques, is difficult to quantify. All humans can think, some better than others. Likewise, all humans have some sort of creative skills, again, some more so than others. Engineers are no different, falling all across the entire creativity continuum.

Creativity has been studied throughout history, usually in the realm of psychology. Generally speaking, we know that left-brain functions control conscious thought, logical analysis, language, and outer awareness. The right-brain functions control intuitiveness, creativity, subconscious thought, and inner awareness. Engineers, by nature of their work, need to have both sides of the brain working in sync.

When Georgia Tech’s Carlos Santamarina looked into the shared characteristics of creative scientists, he found that inventive minds have a high degree of autonomy, superior general intelligence, a somewhat detached attitude in interpersonal relationships, and a high degree of control over their personal environment.

But this is not to say that creative thinkers must have the “lone wolf” mentality, locking themselves in a room and waiting for an idea to generate. The University of Houston’s Lienhard, says that socialization is also an important part of the creative process. “Any creative person surrounds themselves with other creative people,” Lienhard says. “Edison created a lab that was based on many creative minds. Einstein was talking to people all the time, there was a huge sense of social involvement.”

Lienhard, who has written several books on the process of inventing, and who hosts the National Public Radio show “Engines of Our Ingenuity” points to a seminar held in 1978 in Sweden. The purpose was to find out how inventive minds work, and 31 scientists participated. They came up with five stages of the creative process.

First, was the arrival of the idea. The next four steps involved gradually making that idea public. The second stage was to expose the idea to criticism by close friends. The third was hard work and analysis, fleshing out and testing the idea. The fourth was learning to teach the idea to others. Finally, in the fifth stage, the inventor would take the idea to the public. “Notice how we move back and forth from public to private—from solitary to social,” Lienhard says. “The people all wrote, sometimes poignantly, about the tension between needs for intellectual companionship and for isolation.”

The need to work in teams seems to be an essential part of the creative process. “Working in teams is important, because it allows students to explore all different solutions to problems,” says Lawrence Carlson, co-director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning (ITL) Program and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “You can teach them to allow themselves to be creative, but it’s not like learning a formula. You give them open-ended opportunities and allow students to fail.”

On the wall at the University of Colorado’s ITL laboratory is a saying by the Chinese philosopher Confucius: “I hear, I forget...I see, I remember...I do, I understand.”



When put together, the skills needed to teach creativity are not all that complicated. They begin with open-ended questions with a healthy dose of self-analysis. Students do well when they identify with a detached role model, a real inventor from the past or present whom they can study. Exercises in cognitive abilities, such as free association and divergent thinking can cause students to think in different ways. Team-building and a collaborative environment enhance the creative cycle.

But some are taking the quantitative analysis even further to take creativity out of that “fuzzy and magical” realm. A new approach, based upon an old idea of examining the creative process in the Soviet Union, is gaining some currency in education and private industry. The program is called TRIZ (pronounced “trees”), which is the Russian acronym for “Theory for Inventive Problem Solving.”

TRIZ was invented by a Soviet mechanical engineer named Genrich Altshuller, who worked in the country’s patent office from the 1940s to 1960s. Rather than categorizing the patents by type—which ones were involved with electricity or farm machinery, for example—Altshuller categorized them by process. Most inventions, about 77 percent, were minor or routine improvements to existing systems. The rare scientific discovery, the invention of a new system, accounted for only 1 percent of all the patent applications.

Altshuller concentrated on the 22 percent of inventions that were fundamental improvements of existing systems, or inventions that found new principles to perform the primary function of an existing system. He found that inventors of routine improvements had to consider about 10 solutions. Rare scientific discoveries require one million possible solutions to consider. Those in the 22 percent of fundamental improvements had to consider between 10,000 and 100,000 solutions to their problems. Many of those solutions had been considered before in other problem-solving ventures. What Altshuller showed was that nearly 4 in 5 of all problems engineers faced have been solved somewhere before.

TRIZ can be complicated, and the results of the problem-solving exercises are full of flow charts and segmenting the innovation process into smaller parts. Used for many years in Europe and Japan, TRIZ is now starting to show up in some university engineering courses. Eugene I. Rivin, a mechanical engineering professor at Wayne State University, has used TRIZ in his courses, and claims it allows students to focus on problem solving without fear of failure. “While the announced corporate policies are always ‘don’t be afraid of failures, learn by them,’ in real life the attitudes are very different,” Rivin wrote recently. “As a result, many students and engineers attending short courses are very close-minded. Students are afraid to offer solutions or even questions about the problem, since it might be a wrong suggestion or a stupid question, and they would “lose face.” The TRIZ training gives the participants an assurance that they are able and capable of tackling (and, frequently, solving) any tough, unusual, and complex problems. Their minds are opening, they are not afraid. Even weak students are changing noticeably.

Zion Bar-el, CEO of Ideation International Inc., a Michigan-based TRIZ consulting company that produces books, lecture materials, and software based upon TRIZ, says his company is now working with Carnegie-Mellon University, Vanderbilt University, North Carolina State University, and the University of Michigan. Companies such as Ford Motor Co., Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson, and Hewlett-Packard are also incorporating TRIZ-based ideology into their design systems.

Bar-el says that TRIZ will become the “next big thing” in teaching creativity, a system that balances analysis with innovation. “[Altshuller] captured the essence of inventions from the past so there is a knowledge-based education people can readily tap into,” Bar-el says. “TRIZ helps you to analyze the system. We teach you how to look around. Everything is a system and can be analyzed, and anyone can come up with ideas for how to improve them. I have seen engineers become addicted to it.”



Jeff Giffin, 25, a senior at the University of Colorado-Boulder is studying to be an inventor. He is not majoring in engineering as such, but instead has created his own major called simply, “invention.” His class in Invention and Innovation from the ITL program has taught him “to fail often to succeed sooner.”

Giffin has already helped to invent an alpine ski system that will allow skiers to train on winding roads during the summer season. The team that helped design the systems went through about a dozen designs before it found one that worked (using castor wheels and elastamers to simulate real skiing techniques). “The funny thing was that most of the ideas that looked good on paper, didn’t work out in the field,” Giffin says.

Giffin is currently working on a patented invention design for a bicycle light system. The non-friction system uses tiny magnets mounted on the wheels, and by using the motion of the wheels, electricity is created and stored in batteries for a light emitting diode system. This invention is the answer to Giffin’s personal needs. He commutes by bicycle to campus, and was tired of replacing batteries or having batteries wear out after nightfall.

John Lienhard says that Giffin’s experience is what invention and innovation are all about. “Humans invent technology, and technology reinvents humans who reinvent technology,” he says. “Teaching students how to be creative liberates them. The mother of invention is freedom; the father of invention is hedonism.”

Lienhard believes the challenge for educating engineers to be creative is all about freedom. It is also about teaching in a time and place where education is different. Students have access to all sorts of technical information that was unheard of even two decades ago. The onus, Lienhard believes, is on the educational establishment to change the way engineering is taught. Focusing on creativity and invention is one of the areas that needs to have more of a focus, he says

“What we do when we function creatively is to load an array of knowledge—plain old remembered data—into our frontal lobes where we manipulate it,” Lienhard said in a recent speech. “We look for intersections of previously unrelated threads among those data…we have to invent an education that will give people what they need, now that their access to information is totally different from ours at their age.

“Inventing the right means for teaching in these situations means, literally, predicting the future. And that we can never do. All we can do is create the future of engineering education. We cannot predict it, only create it. Spooky.”


Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.

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