Monday, November 9, 2009

Generating Innovative Ideas

Last week one of the professors in the Mechanical Engineering department was awarded a prestigious award for Teaching Innovation.

I attended his lecture, at which he was given the award. His talk was on how he encourages innovation through his teaching techniques. It was really interesting, I thought. He talked about how it is always better to learn through doing than to learn through simply listening. Of course DOING takes more resources and more time than just LECTURING, so we are fortunate to be at a school with the means to accomplish this.

One specific example he gave was the freshman class he teaches on design. One class period is on writing specs. Writing specs means to carefully record the steps or procedures for a given process. It's usually a dreadfully boring process, tedious and detail-oriented. But this professor breaks students into teams, gives them pieces of fruit and has them write specs on how to dissect it. Then, the student teams swap specs and try to guess the piece of fruit that the unknown spec was written to dissect.

One day the Dean of the MechE department was giving tours to parents of freshman. The Dean took them by the classroom (happens to have glass windows, like a lab) to view the lecture. It happened to be the "writing specs" lecture, and the students looked so engrossed the parents didn't even want to interrupt! The most boring lecture topic of all, and the students looked to busy to disturb!

During this lecture I was attending on teaching innovation, the professor did an "in-class exercise" of sorts, to illustrate a point. He handed out pieces of paper and told us to write for four minutes and list as many ideas as we could on "how to save money at World's Best School." The faculty all laughed, because we have been going through recession-related budget cuts, and the topic hit a little close to home...

After four minutes, we all turned in our papers. While the professor continued talking, three of his students looked over the papers. Further along in the lecture, the professor declared the "winner" of the contest. The criteria turned out to be (and we didn't know this) how many ideas you wrote down. The winner had 30 ideas. I had perhaps six.

"So how do you come up with that many ideas? How was that person so creative?" asked the professor, "And can that be TAUGHT?"

One of the techniques he teaches in his classes to encourage proliferate ideas is to come at the problem from different viewpoints. So if, for instance, you are trying to think of ways to improve student life - think about dorm life, food on campus, extracurricular activities, mentoring available, sports offered, student clubs. Generate as many ideas in each category as you can.

I thought that was useful. Breaking a vague problem up into smaller digestible segments seems like the right way to go.

The professor also mentioned other techniques, but the kicker came at the end of the lecture.

In his last couple minutes, he held up the "winner" of the ideas contest - the one with the 30 ideas. And it turns out, that person had done just as he said. There were four or five categories of saving money, and ideas under each category.

Maybe he had a plant. :)

No comments:

Post a Comment