What Does It Mean to Engineer Creativity?

Engineering creativity. Oxymoron? Our experience says no.

We use engineering problems to engage students in making things and improving things. This generates instant engagement and gets teams of kids thinking rather than listening (or not listening).

We engineer creativity by presenting problems for learning teams to solve. We pick the problems that meet our criteria. First, the problem has to be fun. We want students to jump in without hesitation. Many of our problems are based on toys, and kids’ familiarity with toys makes for a fast transition from “I’m sitting here doing nothing” to “This is cool – how can we do this?”

Toys also ensure components are inexpensive and readily available. Check out catalogues from science supply companies. Hundreds of pages beg you to spend way more money than you have on machines and systems that you will use one day each year. Our problems use recycled materials, stuff that is readily available in schools, and inexpensive components that can be used and re-used often. Even a modest budget stocks enough supplies for many creative learning activities.

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Fun and inexpensive are primary requirements. So is solvability. Kids have to be able to solve the problem within the scope of school constraints. Not that every team will have equal success. Often the A students don’t lead the way – some classroom backbenchers are just as smart, but don’t show their smarts until they can be creative. Some other kids expect the teacher to solve their problem (“Teacher, I need help”), so they don’t engage. When they discover that help is not coming they learn to take initiative. The success of other teams, expressed in sounds of celebration and high fives, convinces them to jump in.

Iteration is important. “One and done” doesn’t work in the real world and shouldn’t be expected in the classroom. You try an idea, see where it works and where it doesn’t work, and improve it. Each iteration, you hope, makes it better. This is the “fast prototype” approach. It is the mantra of R&D, which is the art of learning new things – which is what we want students to do. When the first prototype has been tested, new ideas pop up on how to improve it. Team members share ideas, figure out which idea to test first, and re-build. They are developing 21st Century Skills without a boring lecture on that subject. They’re also discovering fundamental STEM concepts.

This, by the way, is how inventors work. As director of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, I met with some of the world’s most successful inventors. They explained to me how they came up with ideas and made them work. Engineering creativity puts kids in the same environment as inventors. When kids are treated like inventors, they act like inventors and learn at warp speed. Best of all they build understanding. They’re not just memorizing for the test.

We do inject content into the process of engineering creativity, but we do it when students are ready to learn and are receptive to receiving the information. No rope pushing here. The information we share and the understanding we facilitate is delivered as teams work through the creative experience.

Where is the creativity, you might ask? It’s sprinkled throughout the process. It’s generating engineering solutions and design. It’s encouraging teams to take off in some new direction of their own choosing. It’s documenting the hands-on engineering problem into presentations and reports. Each project looks different and all the teams get to see how their peers solved the problem.

Using common materials allows us to add one other element to the learning experience. We challenge students to continue working at home. It’s their option and not every student does. But every student who brings back an improved model or new idea has spent time at home thinking, building, solving problems, and being creative at home. We count that as a big win.

Can you engineer creativity? Can you use engineering to launch creativity and critical thinking? Can engineered creativity improve learning? Our experience in 31 countries shouts “yes.”

Learn more about Engineering Creativity here.