Ball bearings and technical drawings. Photo Credit: amanoverseas.com
Creativity is a huge part of being an innovative engineer. Thinking outside of the box it what has allowed the human race to advance their science and technology to the levels that we see today. While there are a few exceptions most of the engineering courses taken to receive the final degree focus on building a foundation of knowledge. These classes are designed to give a future engineer a solid base to develop ideas from. Creativity is a difficult thing to teach because it comes to everyone in a different way. Here are a few things that I do to help me become more creative.
The biggest thing, at least for me, is that I keep an idea notebook. It is just a small composition notebook that usually remains in my backpack, but when ever I see something that is frustrating or looks like it could be improved I jot it down. This way I have a list of problems that need solving.
Another thing for me is staying in touch with the advancements in technology by reading science blogs and sometimes the journal articles that they refer to. This keeps me learning and stretching my mind into new areas. Some of these new ideas I can tie to the list of problems that need solving and then I can start designing as system that would solve this problem.
Practicing the creative process is one of the best ways to get better at it. By seeing a problem and then attempting to design a system, either as a thought exercise or on paper, more problems come up, which in turn need solving. By going through this process, solving problems, learning new things, applying these things to existing problems, new and innovative solutions arise.
This is the method that I use to come up with new ideas and inject creativity into my work. Please feel free to comment with methods that you use. Everyone’s mind works a little differently and there are so many different ways to find inspiration.
Stressed guy. Photo Credit: lifechirocenter.com
“Things present themselves to you, and it’s how you choose to deal with them that reveals who you are. We all say a lot of things, don’t we, about who we are and how we think. But in the end it’s your actions, how you respond to circumstance that reveals your character.” – Cate Blachett
Problems are simply a part of life and are statistically unavoidable. However, just because everyone has problems does not mean we all approach them in the same way. It is your individual mindset that determines this. Two people can look at the same problem and have polar opposite outlooks. Personally, years in the higher education system have given me an engineering mindset which contains problem solving skills which I believe are the most valuable tools at my disposal because they can be applied to almost any problem in engineering and in life. To solve almost any problem you need to take the time to identify what you’re given, what you’re trying to find, and what are the steps to your solution. Easy right?
- Given: What do you have and know immediately? In engineering problems this could be dimensions, loads, boundary conditions, etc. In life, this could be deadlines, money or documents needed, people involved, geographical locations, etc. There is an unsurmountable number of problems you may have, but the given information gives your problem direction. It gives you a base line, where you start and what you have to start with. Sometimes what you know immediately might not be enough and you may need to research and learn new things in order to have the information needed to solve a problem.
- Find: What are you looking for, or in other words, what is your problem exactly? In engineering your problem could be looking for an oil temperature, a maximum stress a component will experience, the amount of heat flux to the system, etc. In life pinpointing exactly what you are looking for can be harder than it seems. Say your twelve year old son is sneaking out of school regularly to consume drugs with his friends at a nearby park. As a parent you might think the friends are the obvious problem and are the cause of this behavior. Or even the school is at fault because they are unable to keep kids from sneaking out of campus. However, the problem could be that your divorce with his mother and the nightly malicious arguments he hears leads him to lose stability in his life which he copes with drugs use. Hopefully it is not as melodramatic as the hypothetical, but the point is that the problem may or may not seem so clear cut and simple.
- Solution: How are you going to find a solution? Often times diving immediately into solutions can be disastrous so this step requires planning. This is where you use all your information from your previous two steps to come up with a systematic approach to a solution. Ideally you want a step-by-step approach that follows a logical progression that guides you to your answer that makes sense. However, sometimes exact solutions do not exist, assumptions need to be made to simplify the problem and make it solvable. Whatever assumptions you make, you need to be able to back them up with some sort of justification because bad assumptions can affect the quality of your final solution. Ask any student, sometimes finding the solution can make you stressed, lose your appetite, lose sleep, and even cause you to lose contact with friends and family but that is what it costs sometimes to find your answer.
This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the engineering mindset can solve almost any problem. It is truly a universal tool that can be applied almost anywhere. As a young man about to enter the ‘real’ world in just a few months, I can confidently say I am ready for anything thanks to the mindset I have acquired.