Iowa State industrial design professor leads team to improve nation's engineering education

Seda Yilmaz

AMES, Iowa -- An Iowa State University design professor will collaborate with researchers from the University of Michigan and Penn State University in a project to improve engineering students' ability to generate ideas.

The National Science Foundation awarded a three-year, $703,000 grant to the team headed by Seda Yilmaz (SAY-da YILL-mahz), an Iowa State assistant professor of industrial design.

The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology has required that engineering students attain design abilities. This project will provide instructional methods and materials that will help guide the teaching and learning of deliberate approaches to creative problem solving in the design process.

"We can identify common behaviors among designers. And despite disciplinary differences, sharing approaches between engineering and industrial design increases learning and successful outcomes," said Yilmaz, who has taught and researched creativity and cognition in individuals and interdisciplinary design teams for the past six years.

Problem solving is generally regarded as the most important cognitive activity for engineers, with design being the most complex type of problem solving for them, she explained.

"Engineering is all about problem solving, so generating ideas — called ideation — is an essential skill for engineers. The ability to ideate in different ways isn't well understood or traditionally taught and assessed within engineering education," said Yilmaz.

"We want to help engineering students ideate differently," she said.

Everyone has a preferred or innate approach to idea generation that falls somewhere between highly adaptive (making incremental changes) and highly innovative.

"Ideation success depends on ideation flexibility, which is the ability to shift between approaches of generating ideas," Yilmaz said.

The researchers will collect data from pre-engineering students, engineering and industrial design undergraduates and engineering graduate students.

"Including a good volume of data from engineering and design students from three leading universities will help us identify the differences and similarities in approaches," she said. "Our goal is to establish a benchmark ‘mapping’ of students’ ideation behaviors."

Next, they will study how three key instructional factors impact students' ability to shift between ideation approaches. These methods, which will be applied separately and in various combinations in the classroom, are:

  • Problem framing changing the way the problem and its constraints are stated.
  • Ideation tools strategies that facilitate thinking beyond normal perspectives.
  • Ideation teaming — paired interactions during ideation.

"When you're stuck and can't find a way to get out of it, you bring strategies that will employ these key factors into the conversation, try each one and see how the results help," she said.

The data collected will be used to create curricular materials and guidelines for engineering instructors. At the end of the first and second years of the project, the researchers will disseminate their findings to engineering faculty during workshops at Frontiers in Education and the American Society of Engineering Education conferences. And they will distribute their course materials and handbook for discussion and feedback.

At the end of the third year, they will conduct an Ideation Flexibility Workshop, training engineering faculty to conduct workshops on ideation flexibility at their home institutions. An ideation teaching community of practice will be nurtured through a website with research outcomes, educational materials and best practices advice.

"We anticipate that the foundation created in this project will guide future work on ideation tools for other engineering disciplines," Yilmaz said.

The other researchers are Kathryn Jablokow, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design at Penn State; and Shanna Daly, an assistant research scientist in engineering education at the University of Michigan. The team will include a postdoctoral scholar and two graduate students.