Creativity in Higher Education: four key points from the Academic Conference

Published: 25/09/2017

Nick Russell and Tim Ibell summarise the key actions they took from the event.

The Annual Academics’ Conference took place on 14 September at Institution HQ featuring, among other sessions, a special discussion about creativity in civil and structural engineering courses. Co-ordinated by Nick Russell, the Chair of the Joint Board of Moderators (JBM), with support from fellow Past President, Tim Ibell, academics broke out into groups to discuss how best to incorporate creativity in structural engineering education. 

Here Nick Russell and Tim Ibell summarise the key actions they took from the event.

Give students the tools to think creatively 

Emphasising creativity in higher education will aid design innovation in the next generation of structural engineers, helping them deliver structures which are both more aesthetically pleasing and stable. We must emphasise to students the importance of interrogating a brief using both closed- and open-ended questioning; of understanding that having ideas isn’t the same as problem solving (they involve different skills and engineers don’t just solve problems); and that engineering design is an iterative process.

Let students make mistakes

Students can only learn by making mistakes, which is unfortunately the antithesis of modern secondary and tertiary education in the UK. Universities must allow students to make mistakes and to assess the process of learning, rather than the apparent quality of the output. This will have the dual benefit of encouraging creative design which stretches boundaries and the creation of more confident, well rounded engineers with a good understanding of why failures occur. 

Allow for between 3 to 6 group design project-based tasks for the length of a course

Creative and appropriate design is central to what structural engineers do. Design should be introduced on day one of a student’s time at university and carry through until the end of the programme. Design exercises can and should be of varying duration, of varying complexity and with some undertaken alone and others in collaboration with peers – from a different discipline entirely, if feasible. 

In addition to longer design projects that last several weeks, design projects of just a couple of hours should be introduced across degree programmes - immersing students in the fun, creative conceptual initiation of a major project to concentrate entirely on the big questions at the start of a project. These could involve only sketching of ideas, and formative peer assessment to retain a sense of fun. 

Encourage students to make models

Longer design projects should have model making as a central requirement. If a model is difficult to build or unstable, then this is the strongest clue to real structural behaviour. Other allied aspects, such as shading (lighting), circulation space (dead space) and aesthetics are also easily assessed by students using a real model. Equally, electronic models which possibly include parametric modelling capabilities are to be encouraged alongside physical modelling (but not at its expense). Asking students to use their model as a centre-piece to their design review (assessment) is a good way to ascertain what students have learned from the model-making process. 

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