Engineers think innovatively, brainstorm and analyze multiple solutions, compare the effectiveness of various designs, and make informed recommendations about open-ended problems.
Engineers tackle open-ended problems that rarely have one unique solution. Instead, engineers creatively generate a variety of ways they might approach or address the problem—envisioning multiple solutions an important part of their work. During brainstorming, engineers engage in out-of-the-box thinking to foster the flow of innovative ideas. Rapid generation of many diverse ideas results in a wealth of possibilities. Oftentimes new ideas are sparked from existing ideas. Combining ideas can generate novel approaches.
It is not always easy to think innovatively or brainstorm and analyze multiple solutions. In engineering, the brainstorming process is strengthened by intentionally assembling teams that bring diverse strengths, perspectives, and experiences to solving a problem.
Once an array of possibilities exists, engineers weigh the criteria and constraints and consider the context and needs of the client. This helps engineering teams select the best elements they will include in the approaches they will test and iterate.
Even when an engineering team produces a design, it is not the only or “final” design. Other groups (in other companies) may engineer different solutions. For example, consumers have a choice about which phone or fertilizer best meets their needs. Over time, designs can evolve. As new materials and ways of thinking develop, solutions are re-imagined and improved. Most technologies have a history.
Today’s smart phone came from the flip phone, from the portable phone, from the rotary phone from the candlestick phone. Constantly envisioning a next generation of possibilities is what engineers do.
As they engineer, youth experience open-ended problems that allow for an array of solutions. Diverse solutions should be encouraged, shared, and celebrated. Generating original solutions can help youth develop agency for and ownership of their designs and investment in the performance of their technology.
When they are developing designs that are unique, youth need to plan next steps for their project on their own—they cannot turn to other groups or an educator for the answer. Youth will often devote hours to creating and improving technologies—designing and redesigning them. This results in stronger solutions and deeper thinking. Design challenges with many different solutions foster creativity, problem solving, and innovative thinking.
Developing original solutions to real world problems can empower youth and help them develop self-efficacy. Allow time for creating and improving their ideas. Encourage ownership of their designs.
Developed in collaboration with Christine M. Cunningham. These practices are also more fully described in educational research articles, such as Cunningham & Kelly (2017).
Learn how engineers use a systematic, iterative process, called the engineering design process, to generate solutions.