Strategies to Foster Creativity in Engineering Design

Name of Strategy: Strategies to Foster Creativity in Engineering Design

Course Information

Course Name: EBS1 (Fundamentals of Biological Systems Engineering)

Enrollment: ~60

Brief Description of Course: First-year course that provides an introduction to Biological Systems Engineering and to the engineering design process. Students apply engineering design knowledge to a quarter-long group design project that requires use of computer-aided design and mechanical fabrication. Each week, the class has two, 1 hr lecture periods, one, 3 hr computer lab, and time in the shop to work on project fabrication.

Strategy Implementation

It is critical that engineering students can integrate creative ideas into engineering design, which will facilitate discovery of innovative solutions to today’s global challenges (1). However, when presented with a design challenge, students often select to make minor modifications on pre-existing designs instead of creating an entirely new, novel solution (2). Previous studies have shown that training in creativity, including lectures and practical exercises, can assist students in fostering creativity in their engineering design projects (1).

In this course, students participate in a quarter-long design project where they are required to develop design ideas to meet certain needs in biological systems engineering. In previous offerings of the course, I had observed that instead of developing their own creative ideas, many students instead chose designs they could find online or made only small modifications to these designs. As such, my objective was to increase creativity in developing first-year design projects.

To encourage creativity in the idea generation stage of their design project, students had a lecture on creativity that included three interactive exercises. The objective of including this lecture and exercises was so that the students would use the skills learned in class to develop creative design alternatives in their design projects. The creativity exercises were structured to build off of one another, moving from idea generation, to creative problem solving in general, to creative problem solving in the specific discipline area. These exercises were completed within a 50 min lecture period.

Exercise #1: Idea Generation – Quantity vs. Quality

The first exercise was adapted from a TED Talk by Tim Brown (3) that involves filling in a sheet of 30 circles in 1 minute. The students were given a blank sheet (Fig 1.) and instructed that they would have 1 minute to draw designs that fill as many circles as possible during the allocated time frame. They were not told about the type of designs possible, nor any other restrictions. They were also instructed to aim for quantity, not quality in this initial exercise.

Figure 1. Example blank sheet of 30 circles for students to design in 1 minute. Adapted from (3).


Figure 2. Example of designs from Exercise #1 after 1 minute.

At the end of 1 minute, the students were told to stop, and were shown an example of designs (Fig. 2). They were surveyed to see how many people had used all of the circles (only a few students), ranging down to 10-15 of the circles (many students). Following this exercise, there was a class discussion on idea generation and strategies to reduce mental or conceptual blocks. There was also discussion regarding why many people do not fill all of the circles in this exercise – they are aiming to draw nice pictures in many of the circles and do not just put down the first things that come to mind. This exercise and discussion took about 10 mins.

Exercise #2: Creative Problem Solving – General Ideas

Following the first creativity exercise and class discussion, the class was divided into groups of 3-4 people. Their second exercise was to generate ideas to solve a problem (unrelated to Biological Systems Engineering), and they were told the teams would be in competition; the team with the most ideas that were unique to their team (e.g. no other team had thought of the same idea) would get a higher score than other teams.

The problem: 5 people (yourself included!) are stuck on a deserted island that is 1000 m from shore (Fig. 3). You do not have any food or water, and you need to get to shore immediately. However, you only have the following supplies:

  • 500 m rope
  • 5 m long canoe that only holds 2 people (no more, no less), with 2 paddles
  • An abandoned school bus (which cannot drive)
  • 5 trees (each 30 m long, 1 m wide)
  • It is impossible to directly swim to shore because of sharks in the water

Figure 3. Example diagram shown to students in their creative problem solving activity.

Teams were instructed to come up with as many ideas as possible as to how they could get to shore with the materials provided. They were told that they will receive 1 point for each idea, and 5 points for each idea that is unique to their team only. The students had about 15 mins to come up with ideas. They wrote down their ideas, but did not have to turn them in. After the idea generation was over, there was a class discussion about the potential solutions.

Although this problem was not expressly related to engineering design, the objective was to get students to think about a problem from different angles, and come up with creative solutions. Students came up with very unique solutions to the problem presented here, and found this to generally be a fun exercise.

Exercise #3: Creative Problem Solving – Discipline Specific

For the third creativity exercise, students stayed in the same teams as Exercise #2 and were tasked to develop creative ideas for specific challenges in biological systems engineering. They were not required to develop any details about the ideas, only to start the brainstorming process. They were given 5-7 mins to develop ideas, followed by a 7-10 min in-class discussion of the potential solutions. The objective of this exercise was to get students to thinking creatively about a problem within our specific discipline, building off of the previous exercises. The question posed to students was:

With unlimited resources, how would you preserve tomatoes?

This question was utilized as Northern California grows more than 12 million tons of processing tomatoes each year, and innovative solutions from biological (food) engineers may be utilized in future processing scenarios. As part of this exercise, students came up with many innovative and creative ideas for processing.

Assessment and Analysis

Although students were able to come up with many creative ideas during the creativity exercises completed in the class, many groups struggled to develop creative design ideas for their own projects, and ended up utilizing designs that were similar (or had minor modifications) to readily available solutions.

Nevertheless, some teams did come up with very creative designs. For example, one of the assigned projects was to develop a bioreactor that was capable of growing algae that could be used for food and/or fuel applications. Many teams utilized a fish tank or similar vessel for their bioreactor. However, one team decided to utilize a milk dispensing bag from the university dining commons as their reactor vessel, as this would utilize material that was otherwise considered waste and could function well for the purposes of the project (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Example of a creative design project for an algae bioreactor that utilized a used milk dispensing bag from the university dining commons as the reactor.

In the future, I plan to complete similar exercises in my course, but will emphasize the importance of creativity in the idea generation stage for the student’s design projects. I plan to also add material to the creativity lecture about the importance of creativity in engineering design with the hope that the students will be able to apply their creative process (which is evident in the in-class activities) to their design projects in my first-year course and beyond. To enhance the assessment of these activities, a potential approach may be to include a pre- and/or post-activity survey to determine the student’s perceptions on creativity and how this can be applied in their design projects.

(1) Cropley, David H. and Cropley, Arthur J. 2000. Fostering Creativity in Engineering Undergraduates. High Ability Studies. 11(2): 207-219.

(2) Charyton, Christine and Merrill, John A. 2009. Assessing General Creativity and Creative Engineering Design in First Year Engineering Students. Journal of Engineering Education. 98(2): 145 – 156.

(3) Brown, Tim. 2008. Tales of Creativity and Play.

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