But at Purdue University, it's all part of a senior-level mechanical engineering course, designed to help students tap into their hidden reserves of creativity. The course not only provides a new dimension to a highly technical curriculum, it also helps students get their feet in the door with potential employers and gives them the skills to improve their professional lives, says the instructor.
"The knowledge we convey to engineering students through lectures, equations, homework assignments and demonstrations will probably be obsolete in five years," says Victor Goldschmidt, professor of mechanical engineering.
"To remain viable in the engineering profession, students need skills that will allow them to go beyond 'training.' Tapping into their own creativity is one way they can learn to solve problems in new ways. It's a skill anyone can develop, but it's especially important to engineers."
Goldschmidt, whose students call him "V.G.," is the instructor for ME 493 - The Creative Process in Engineering, which combines engineering with a bit of cognitive psychology, fine arts, communications and group dynamics.
Goldschmidt's class is not a standard lecture class. "If I use an overhead projector, it's by mistake," he says. "If we use the chalk board, it's because we really made a mistake. I don't see myself as a teacher in this course. I see myself as a facilitator."
Students begin the course by reading about creativity and trying to define it. As the course progresses, they keep dream journals, share experiences about environments in which their creativity was inhibited or encouraged, and discuss creativity in corporate settings. Students complete assignments on group dynamics, strategic planning and brainstorming. The final exam consists of a lecture by a fine artist on how creativity flows in the mind of an artist.
"The purpose of the course is not to create things," Goldschmidt says. "The purpose is to give students permission to be creative.
"If you plot creativity versus age, we all are creative when we're very young. At about five years of age, your shoe can become a truck, or a mansion, or a missile or a bed. Then you go to kindergarten, and creativity begins to be inhibited. You're told to sit in the same place every time, raise your hand to leave the classroom, always write your name in the top right corner of your paper. We're not much different in our university courses."
Goldschmidt says he discourages his students from giving him conventional reports on anything. Instead, he asks them to give feedback and responses. Some of the feedback has included paintings, three-dimensional models of the brain and videos.
For part of the semester each student is asked to keep a dream journal. By the end of the term, students must solve an engineering problem of their own through a dream. If they are unable to do so, they must go to the library and find five references to people who have.
"It's amazing how fast they dream," Goldschmidt quips. One student used a dream to help solve a troubling computer-aided design project.
"In a dream he saw things rotating all over the place," Goldschmidt says. "When he awoke, he realized what he was doing wrong -- he was missing one view in the rotation that he needed in order to see all the dimensions of the object."
While he doesn't have any particular techniques to pass on to students to make themselves dream about specific problems, Goldschmidt says students usually work it out for themselves.
"When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes don't process my dreams right away, but while I'm in the shower and thinking about last night's dreams, something may pop out," he says.
"I think we all have some control over our subconscious. I was having dinner with a very successful industrialist one evening, a man with several patents, and he told me he was able to put a thought into his subconscious, seal it in and process it unconsciously for a while, and then pull it out when he was ready to apply it to a new idea. He wasn't able to tell me how he did it, though."
Dream analysis is only one part of this nontraditional course, which the School of Mechanical Engineering offered on a pilot basis for three years before giving it the status of a formal class last fall.
Students also develop strategic plans, starting with defining a mission statement, goal and objectives for an imaginary company. They also work in teams to do strategic plans for something they live with and are excited about, such as the mechanical engineering curriculum and the residence halls.
For example, the goals of the residence hall plan were to increase study areas, enhance the quality of food service, increase the number and quality of social activities, and refurbish old facilities. The goals of the curriculum plan included increasing the curriculum from a four- to five-year program and getting research professors more involved with undergraduate students. Each team then presented several specific ideas for accomplishing their goals.
"Around Thanksgiving break, I ask them to do a strategic plan for themselves, for their own lives," Goldschmidt says. "Some have never thought about that."
The course also deals with corporate creativity, with engineers from industry visiting the class.
"One senior design engineer from an automotive company told the class that you become a Lone Ranger if you really want to be creative," Goldschmidt says. "He said you can become the enemy of people who don't want the boat rocked."
But Goldschmidt tempers that assessment by explaining to his students that in a corporate setting, they must develop some maturity before they can push their creative thoughts without threatening people.
"In class, we look at the trend toward teaming in industry, where you encounter other dimensions of the creative process that are related to group dynamics," he says. Examples include reading and using body language and mastering brainstorming and other techniques.
For some students, mentioning the course on a resume seems to be a selling point. Students often are asked about it during job interviews, Goldschmidt says.
Also, some students who have taken the course have emulated the class exercises on the job. Goldschmidt says a former student working in an automotive company said he was in a group meeting where he carefully watched one person in the group.
"After the meeting, he impressed his co-workers by telling them all about this guy, describing him and the situation and how he fit in with the group," Goldschmidt says. "He was definitely applying group dynamics."
To tap into his own creativity, Goldschmidt practices the same techniques as his students.
"I have a whole stack of dreams that I've written and analyzed, that's one source," he says. "I've also written some poetry and songs. I read a lot, especially the Bible, and I'm married to an artist. She keeps me honest."
Goldschmidt, who has been teaching subjects such as thermodynamics and fluid mechanics for 30 years, says he got the idea for the ME 493 course while on sabbatical in 1989.
"In a typical engineering course, we present theory, go through examples of how the theory can be implemented, give homework similar to those examples, give tests similar to the homework, and give final exams similar to the tests," he says. "I began to wonder whether this was very creative."
He looked for other creativity-related courses in the country and found one at Stanford, called Creative Problem Solving, taught for the past 20 years by James Adams, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering. "I spent a whole day with him, read his books, and asked him what he thought about my ideas for a course at Purdue," Goldschmidt says. "He was very receptive and encouraging."
Goldschmidt says he believes creativity courses should be a national trend.
"Whether it's a result of this class, or a sign of the times, we've had the word 'creativity' mentioned more frequently in the hallways since this course has been offered," he says. "It's very hard to keep a class like this going, though. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of emotional energy goes into it, too, as students open up and discuss their own creative process, and how they want to awaken it."
Sources: Victor Goldschmidt, (765) 494-2130; Internet, firstname.lastname@example.org
James Adams, Stanford University, (415) 723-1849
Writer: Amanda Siegfried, (765) 494-4709; home, (765) 497-1245; Internet, email@example.com
To the Purdue News and Photos Page