Alexander Calder 1975 BMW 3.0 CSL ART CAR

How Engineering School Could Foster Creativity.

…and incubate revolutionary ideas.

By Robinson Greig

In my last article, I discussed how engineering school is killing creativity. Now, I will present seven concepts that would redefine higher education, and help students overcome the technical constraints of their studies.

1. End studio segregation — At my University, the mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and architects all work in separate studios. I’m also assuming there are a number of art studios on campus, but an early 90's GPS could give you better directions to those studios than I could. Logistics and safety are poor excuses to separate these work spaces. A single consolidated work space would promote curiosity, expanded discussions, and collaboration across disciplines.

Design consultancy IDEO encourages employees to switch desks once a week.

2. Offer a multidisciplinary minor — I chose not to pursue a minor at university because I did not want to further centralize my studies. A multidisciplinary minor would require students to complete a single course in six different disciplines, instead of six courses in a single discipline. This could result in more empathetic engineers with stronger communication abilities and more expansive thought. An engineering students who pursues this minor may take courses in business, graphic design, philosophy, marine biology, literature, and music. And let’s be serious here — students who come into university as undecided could use this minor as a method to explore their interests before deciding on a major.

3. Offer mini courses — I’m taking a page from the entrepreneurial lean methodology book here. Have you ever taken a course because one piece of the course was appealing? How about losing interest in a course half way through the semester? I have. Semesters are flawed, at least for elective courses.

Shorter month-long courses would allow students to iterate on their interests more frequently, and experiment in a broader range in courses. Most courses are already broken up into modules, so transition to several mini courses is a simple administrative change. Instead of spending a semester studying organizational psychology, I would have preferred just a bite, along with a spoonful of HTML/CSS, and a side of social entrepreneurship.

If you can’t commit to a soup or salad at lunch, how can Universities expect students to commit to a semester-long course? Universities should allow students to fill their plates with a variety of mini-courses.

My high school history teacher use to preach about how improved communication has created a shrinking world. The same is applicable to business work space. Roles are being redefined and the way we collaborate is rapidly changing. The world has the capacity to accept more customized degrees. What if students were encouraged to pursue five minors instead of a major?

4. Require an art course — How many of you engineers have ever admitted to being terrible at drawing, or have ever struggled to graphically express an idea to a colleague? My bet is most of you. My university required me to take a humanities elective and a social science elective. Interpreting the Day’s News and Microeconomics were interesting, but far from the most intellectually-enriching courses I have taken. I would have benefited much more from a 2D and 3D sketching course.

5. Work with nearby elementary schools — I used to drive my parents nuts as a kid because I relentlessly asked “why.” My endless curiosity, creativity, and young-age ignorance drove me to understand and question why things were the way they were. It turns out that asking “why” is a prominent method of root cause analysis as well as identifying areas of potential innovation. Elementary school children would stretch the engineering train of thought so far out of the comfort zone, that when paired up with the little monsters, engineering students would have no choice but to come up with something innovative.

The children seen here are enjoying the memory of that time they blew the minds of a group of engineering students.

6. Prototyping stipend — Engineers have big ideas, but we all know students are strapped for cash. Universities should do everything in their power to incubate students’ ideas. A small stipend made available to each student every semester would go a long way and enable students to further develop their ideas. Regulation of the funds could be done through the existing purchasing department, and ensure the funds were being put to good use.

7. Delete GPA — Stress is one of the best ways to block creativity. Grade point average (GPA) creates a stressful and competitive learning environment in which students’ studies revolve around receiving a high mark instead of understanding the curriculum. GPA also fails to distinguish between ‘book smarts’ and ‘street smarts’, and few employers place a high value on GPA when hiring.


Our abilities as engineers to fulfill the stereotype of being problem solvers is limited by the constraints of our curriculum. The scientific laws by which we operate have placed us in a maze of concrete ideas that stifles our creativity. I have proposed seven concepts that I think would improve technical education and enable more creative engineering. I encourage everyone who reads this article to contribute to the discussion and help generate more ideas.

Originally published at on Nov 16, 2013.