A few weeks ago, I wrote about a small revelation I had about the lack of acknowledgement in engineering creativity at AU. In that post, I rattled on about the fact that the paramount focus in engineering education as well as ongoing engineering professional development programs focus on the acquisition of technical knowledge and not enough on nurturing creativity. But it’s not a bleak picture. In fact, there have been some changes at the earliest educational levels in this regard. I find it not only fascinating but also eminently relevant to engineering.

Some New Educational Programs

Locally here in the Austin TX area, there are a couple of educational programs that start at the elementary level and continue all the way through high school. They are called QUEST and PACE. Here’s a quick rundown of the two of them.

The QUEST Program for Creativity

To start, here’s a quick excerpt about the QUEST program from the Leander Integrated School District in Austin TX.

“QUEST” is an acronym for Quality Utilization and Enrichment of Student Talents. Leander ISD’s QUEST Program is designed to meet the needs of identified gifted students who have demonstrated above-average ability in the following two areas of giftedness as defined by the Texas State Plan for the Gifted: 1) high general-intellectual ability at the 95th percentile; and, 2) creative and productive thinking. QUEST is available to LISD students in the elementary through high school grades.

The QUEST program is developmental in scope, with the curriculum addressing core content areas through projects and units that cross multiple subject areas. QUEST students have the opportunity to investigate topics of interest to them in greater depth and complexity. Students expand their abilities to apply critical thinking, creative thinking, communication, and research skills through individual and group projects, studies and problem-solving units.

At first glance, maybe it doesn’t look all that relevant to engineering. Or maybe it does. But when I took a look at the entrance testing required for the program, I was fairly surprised. One set of those is called the Torrance Tests for Creative Thinking which was developed by Ellis Paul Torrance, an American psychologist. Here’s a short description on what it entails from its entry in wikipedia.

Building on J.P. Guilford’s work, the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) originally involved simple tests of divergent thinking and other problem-solving skills, which were scored on four scales:

  • Fluency. The total number of interpretable, meaningful, and relevant ideas generated in response to the stimulus.
  • Flexibility. The number of different categories of relevant responses.
  • Originality. The statistical rarity of the responses.
  • Elaboration. The amount of detail in the responses.

Maybe I’m looking at this wrong, but doesn’t that look almost exactly like an ‘innovation competition’ that someone like a Karl Ulrich, a guru on innovation, talks about all the time? When organizations pursue innovation and crowd sourcing initiatives, they are often looking for a spread of product ideas that exhibit these same characteristics. I thought the parallel uncanny.

Being around the program a little bit, the emphasis in the QUEST program isn’t nearly so much on knowledge as it is creativity. I’ve done some research on how widespread this type of program is across the nation. But unfortunately, I haven’t found anything that is consistent in terms of a type of program. The names vary. The source of funding varies. It’s kind of all over the map.

The PACE Program for Accelerated Knowledge Acquisition

In our area, there’s also another separate program called PACE that is splintered across a number of educational areas like mathematics, language arts, reading etc. Although there isn’t as much information on this program. The difference with PACE, however, is that it is an accelerated curriculum. Essentially, it is about developing skills and acquiring knowledge at a faster pace than normal.

The Importance of Decoupling the Two

In this post, it’s fairly obvious that I’m pointing out these two programs because they decouple two separate activities. QUEST nurtures creativity. PACE lets kids acquire knowledge and skills more quickly. Why am I focused on that? The main reason is that to date, in my opinion, engineering education has been overbalanced in its focus on the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Now don’t get me wrong. Engineering students still need to get statics, dynamics, thermodynamics and the requisite 4-6 semesters of calculus to safely design products for the public. But I think nurturing design creativity in engineering is something that is sorely missing today. If I look back at getting my BSME at the University of Kentucky, the first time I worked on a design project in school was my senior year. I don’t think that is the best way to prepare our next generation of engineers.

Summary and Questions

Before I get to some questions, let’s recap.

  • There are some Elementary through High School programs, like QUEST on in Austin TX, that have a primary focus on nurturing creativity.
  • There are also separate Elementary through High School programs, like PACE in Austin TX, that have a primary focus on learning skills and acquiring knowledge at an accelerated pace.
  • Engineering education programs, in my opinion, could learn from such efforts to decouple the acquisition of skills and knowledge from the nurture of creativity.

Now that I’ve penned my thoughts, would love to hear your feedback. Have you seen creativity programs in your community? What type of success or failure have they met?

For those from an engineering background, when was the first time you worked on a real design project in school? I would love to hear from engineers that have graduated from various times in the past to see how things have changed over time.

Looking forward to your feedback!

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.