Oli Broadbent of ThinkUp will host workshops at the Institution’s Academics' Conference on 12 September, offering tips to help teach conceptual design. Here he argues that engineering education still needs far more emphasis on creative thinking.

More impactful teaching

I have been with ThinkUp for 10 years, beginning as a structural engineer. Over the years I have progressed to looking at the ways we teach engineering: I’m concerned with how can engineering be taught with more impact by emphasising design and specifically conceptual design, running projects that train engineers to be more effective. My role at the Academics' Conference is to offer a good understanding of what helps people better understand conceptual design.

Models to explain complex aspects of design

I provide simple models for explaining the complex things we do in design, covering where ideas come from; how a brief is always wrong and requires interpretation; and the critical importance of state of mind to getting good ideas, and conversely the negative effect stress and distraction has on quality of thinking. 

However, it’s a two-way process: I’m looking forward to meeting academics and learning about their own approaches in this area. I always want to collaborate with people interested in exploring new teaching methods.

Design is half the equation

Since WW2 the focus of engineering education has been around analytical technique. Over the last 20 years more thinking about conceptual design has been included in engineering teaching, but in civil and structural engineering it is still mainly taught as just another module, alongside soil mechanics and steel design. Design should be half the equation, analysis the other half. Creativity tells you what to analyse, then analysis follows. Without teaching conceptual design from the outset students can’t have a full understanding of why they’re learning analysis.

Employers want these skills from undergraduates

The Royal Academy of Engineering has published a lot of evidence about what employers look for in employees, revealing a need for graduates who can transfer their knowledge of theory into practice: the best way to do that is to begin education with real problems that need design solutions, then move towards theory.

Some universities in the United States have completely changed engineering curricula to make them entirely design and project focussed - and I understand that employers are falling over themselves to employ these people as they are so focused and effective.

Major shifts are coming

I think we’re about to experience a major shift in terms of problems we need to solve as engineers and the speed at which we need to solve them – the search for an appropriate approach to a problem is a creative process, and I think this will become more important as technological change takes hold and compel us to put creativity and design at the heart of engineering education.

Conceptual design should become the underlying ethos – as engineers we are there to propose, create and implement change in the physical environment, which requires a huge amount of creativity, and I believe universities should therefore be truly inspirational spaces: too often they appear sterile. 

I also don’t think all students should learn the same thing at universities: in my ideal world I would see fixed curricula dropped and academics work with students to identify how best to address their needs. 

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