Innovation and creativity are nearly always mentioned today as key to the future. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity and innovation, has a definition of creativity that really resonates for me - creativity is the process of generating original ideas and insights that have value. He and other psychologists note that all humans have multiple capacities for creativity. Furthermore, creativity is less about genetic inheritance than it is about appropriate environment. While some individuals may seem to have a greater genetic capacity than others, most people have a degree of creative capacity in several areas. Finally, any individual can be creative in one environment, but not in another. Environmental factors (fear of failure, perfectionism, need for peer acceptance, resource limitations, time pressure, etc.) may play an important role in enhancing or suppressing creative behavior.
In just the past few years, Olin has been a launching pad for a handful of successful student start-ups. In the case of indico, which is striving to democratize machine learning, a team of two juniors, two sophomores and one first year cooked up the idea in their dorm room. In late 2014, they raised $3 million in initial funding through Techstars. Not bad for undergraduate engineering students.
I learned the hard way about why engineers need to develop their professional skills – and in my case it had to do with self-confidence. You see, growing up in California, I was interested in protecting large buildings from earthquake damage. So, I did a master’s thesis at MIT that explored a really unusual idea for protecting buildings: unbolting them from the ground and mounting them on Teflon pads at the foundation, so they could intentionally slip around during an earthquake. At the time, this was unorthodox and implicitly challenged conventional thinking. My teachers at MIT told me I should pursue this, so I packed up and went 3,000 miles across the country to Caltech for my PhD—to the school where the Richter scale was invented—and I met with one of the top professors of earthquake engineering. In not so polite terms, he rejected my idea. I was devastated and switched majors.
But later I discovered that a professor at Berkeley came up with a similar idea and built one of these slippery or “flexible” foundations for a model building and tested it on their large shake table. Guess what? It worked very much as my thesis had predicted. And today there is a thriving industry in what’s called “Base Isolation Systems” for buildings.
While my top notch engineering programs gave me the technical expertise I needed to develop new and innovative solutions, they failed to give me the professional skills I needed, which in this case were the power of my convictions and a “can do” attitude, sometimes referred to as qualities of an entrepreneurial mindset.
I love the insights from Kirsten Wolfe's thesis on the careers of MIT graduates – arguably some of the most talented engineers in the world. These graduates reported that while they use a fraction of the technical skills they learned in college in the real world, they use professional skills much more frequently but for the most part didn’t learn them in college.
These skills include ethical behavior and trustworthiness, a positive outlook and accepting responsibility, effective communication and multidisciplinary thinking, to name a few.
In our increasingly complex world where solutions involve human nature as much as they involve technology, engineers will be needed to provide comprehensive and complete situational diagnoses, involving interdisciplinary understanding of the root causes and the consequences of any new technology introduced into the world. They will require global systems planning and analysis, involving social, economic, political, and even religious factors to obtain desired changes in human behavior on both local and global scales.
To surmount these challenges, they will have to function and lead multidisciplinary and diverse teams, be persuasive communicators and active listeners, and be resourceful and know how to acquire new knowledge.
Can these skills be taught? I believe so and there’s a growing body of alternative learning experiences bearing it out at places like FIRST Robotics where high schools students compete as teams and become intrinsically motivated to study STEM subjects. Or at Northeastern University, where students engage in Co-ops that alternate classroom studies with full-time work in career related jobs for six months.
The students at Olin College where I work never cease to impress me. This time it was the selection of Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-motivation as the summer reading book, which the entire community gathered to discuss at Convocation at the beginning of the semester. In my late 50s, I’m only beginning to understand my motivations and those of others but these engineering students are eager to develop a much deeper understanding of what makes them and others tick. These students also convinced Psychology Professor Edward Deci, the author, to come to their Convocation to speak and answer questions.
Topics: engineering education