November 10, 2010

Children who attend the Gizmo Expo get to take the gizmos home.

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(Editor's note: From the fall 2010 edition of Bucknell Magazine.)

By Rhonda K. Miller

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Newsweek reported that creativity in American schools has declined dramatically in the last two decades — our collective muses are stifled by antiquated curricula, nationalized testing and too much television.

Bucknell's engineering faculty endeavors to be the exception to this trend by keeping students engaged with creative projects and promoting collaboration with other University departments.

"Invention requires imagination," says Associate Dean of Engineering and Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Margot Vigeant. She is also a member of the task force organizing this year's Bucknell Forum series, Creativity: Beyond the Box. "Creativity is key even to something as mundane as production of a candy bar. Whether you are making the candy bar itself or creating the machines that make them, you have to figure out how the machines operate, how they are arranged and how easy it will be for people to repair them when they break. You also need to imagine that something will go wrong (since something always goes wrong), and figure out how to build the system so that the product can get out the door anyway. Someone needs to ask, 'What if?' What are the ways the system isn't perfect? What do people desire in the product? Do the machines fit in the building? This all starts with imagination."

Steve Shooter, an inventor and professor of mechanical engineering, agrees that creativity is fundamental to the field of engineering. He organized a faculty workshop in early August to bring together professors from management, art, music, theater, English, education and engineering to discuss commonalities and differences in teaching innovation to students.

The group is now designing a team-taught course called Impact - Exploring Innovation Across the Disciplines for the spring semester. "We need to know how we can benefit from each other,and students need to think in these ways as well," says Shooter. "They need to have a foundation, then reach out to other areas to learn something new."

But that's not to say first-year engineering students are ready for the nonlinear approach.

"I am seeing greater expectations from students that there should be an answer, rather than many acceptable answers to engineering design," says Shooter. "With creativity and innovation, people tend to think of the one spark of genius, but in fact there are many sparks of genius."

Both Shooter and Vigeant use thought-provoking techniques to tap their students' creative potential. The Gizmo Project — the final project within Engineering 100: Exploring Engineering — focuses on problems where teams of four students are asked to help a teacher demonstrate a concept in science, technology or math to kids between ages six and 13.

Teams must use the engineering design process to create a gizmo that shows the conservation of energy or differentiates between magnetic and nonmagnetic materials. They design and build a working device with a $20 budget. These gizmos are featured and given away at the Gizmo Expo at the end of the fall semester (Dec. 6 this year).

Creativity is encouraged through the constraints, Vigeant says. The device must be portable, safe, age-appropriate and durable. Teams are not allowed to use a pre-packaged experiment or device simply for its intended use. "It's difficult to meet those requirements and stay under $20," she explains. "You get students thinking, 'Well, it's $70 to buy that, so how can we make something similar using the soda bottles we fished out of recycling? 'That's serious creativity."

By using recycled materials, Shooter says students are exposed to the concept of evolutionary design. "Revolutionary design creates products that don't exist, but evolutionary design is taking an existing product and creating new functions. Engineers add value to the process," he says. "We make processes more efficient by applying math and science to decision making, and we can do this creatively."

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