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Stoking the creative, innovative engineer

Engineers solve technical problems by applying the principles of math, physics and various other aspects of science. They "simply get it done,” as the saying goes.

Some are happy working on discrete assignments and want only to be left alone to complete the job. Others thrive on managing development teams and engaging with various stakeholders, within a more visible sphere. And for most, cultivating new ideas in different ways is a given at every level.

So what makes a creative, innovative engineer? Stu Walesh, Ph.D, PE, has answers in his book, Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers (Pearson Education, 2016; 368 pages; $49.17 Amazon). Having spent more than 40 years in civil engineering, engineering education and independent consulting, his field of view is broad and his focus keen. The book’s impetus, he told me, came from a drawing course he took and exposure to engineering-university curricula and professional work situations in which convergent, rather than divergent, thinking is the norm.

“Engineers generally have a good work ethic and are often above average in terms of their inherent creativity,” Walesh asserted. “The message in academia and at work should be, ‘You can be even more creative and innovative and make a greater contribution—if you understand how your brain works.’ An intent of my book is to give you basic ‘brain literacy.’ Once you have that, you have the means to be more creative and innovative."

Walesh lays out logical paths for taking a “whole-brain” approach to both the study of engineering and its practice. He clearly explains the importance of using both the logical and analytical “left brain” that is vital to engineering studies with the more intuitive and emotional “right brain” that is the province of artists, writers and other traditionally creative “liberal arts” types. He also suggests ways to leverage conscious and subconscious thinking, noting that rarely does novel, fully considered creativity pop off like a light bulb in our heads.

The book’s nine well-organized and detailed chapters, Walesh uses real-world examples of creative and innovative thinking in aerospace, agriculture, transportation, chemical and biomedical engineering, supported by highly engaging photographs and illustrations. He offers 20 methods or “tools” that are useful for flexing the brain’s natural creative-thinking muscle and help people collaborate and focus. One tool, which Walesh calls Process Diagramming, is useful for teams working in systems-engineering environments who don’t regularly get a big-picture view. The result is smoother process flow and fewer potential bottlenecks—an holistic approach.

Flipping randomly to any page, the impression is decidedly not your typical how-to engineering textbook. Some pages have a kind of "Di Vinci vibe" going on, I think. It’s a refreshing and frankly, cool way to tackle the subjects.

“I wanted it to have a lot of images, line drawings and visuals that capture your attention. I didn’t want mundane titles and subtitles. I tried to set up contrasts in the text. Engineers have always had to settle for black words on white paper, dull writing and, if they’re lucky, a few generic figures scattered through the pages. That’s the way most books aimed at engineers are conceived and published. But that’s not what they’ve wanted!” he said.

College and university engineering departments would do well to see benefit in such a “right-brain/left-brain” approach. But this book also has great value for practicing engineers with open minds who are looking for the key to unlocking their potential.

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