Encouraging creativity in engineers
Tim Little, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Timothy Little uses an exciting project to teach innovation to his electro-mechanical energy conversion students. The students must attempt to build a motor by demonstrating a combination of creativity, ingenuity and sound theoretical knowledge. Dr. Little provides each student with a bag of parts to use, but barely enough to make a functioning prototype. The limited resources force the students to use each part to its maximum capability in order to achieve their goals.
It also gives students the opportunity to experiment. “They’re going to be engineers,” says Dr. Little. “They need to build things to see how the theory that we teach them works in a practical application. They need to see that there are elements of creativity that can advance solutions. In most assignments and labs, there’s only one answer to most questions. This project has a thousand answers so the students have to assess what answer is best.”
Dr. Little’s project brings out the best in his students. “It’s like a 100 watt light bulb when it actually works. The glow is all over their faces. It’s really quite exciting,” he enthuses. One of his biggest challenges is teaching the students to know when they’re done. “At some point they have to say ‘that’s what I’m going to submit; that’s the end of it,’” says Dr. Little. “They never want to do that. They want to improve it, do it again, be better than the next person.”
Dr. Little believes that the key to innovation is to start small and learn as you go. “Start simple,” he says. “Do something that has a deliverable and can be achieved. If that works, you can advance it the next year. Don’t be afraid to try something, but keep it manageable.”