Improving Students’ Creative Problem Solving Skills in Engineering using Visual Representation

Gon Namkoong
Old Dominion University

Contemporary problems are not well defined and have multiple possible causes that are unlikely to be solved by traditional means. Under these circumstances, engineering students are challenged to be creative, constantly rethink, switch directions, change problem-solving strategies, and find innovative approaches. While engineering programs have begun to value creative problem-solving as critical competency required for successful professional practice, instructors still prioritize convergent strategies where students use structured processes to come to the one “right” solution. This is partly due to a lack of instructional materials and strategies to help students’ creative problem-solving in regular courses. Consequently, creative problem-solving education largely relies on a few courses offered mostly in open-ended design courses. Instead, educational resources must all be geared to initiate a creative problem-solving in daily and diverse classroom settings. As a creative synectic exercise we address ‘visual representation’ that takes many different forms like sketches, models, concept maps, wireframes, etc. An integration of visual representation into CPS strategy can bring multifaceted impacts where students may experience creative synectic exercises and momentums including i) critical reflection/interrogation/self-explanation of the problem, ii) brainstorming, iii) visualization and creation and iv) contextualization. To evaluate visual representation methodology and impact on students’ creativity, we explore three key research questions including 1. To what extent do visual representation practices influence the development of skills (fluency, flexibility, originality) of creativity? 2. What is the impact of visual representation on improved learning experiences and outcomes? What factors limit or enhance the ability of students to benefit from visual representation? 3. To what extent do students find the visual representation practices useful and give students a tendency to apply it to other disciplinary areas and future career development? The initial outcomes from student responses highlighted visual representation as a new and authentic experience in engineering education. As seen in students’ visual representation, we have observed students’ creative problem-solving skills in translating abstract concepts into tangible ideas. There were many common comments on visual representation experiences from the student surveys that are summarized below:ØVisual representation seems to prompt students to actively participate in reading textbooks, lecture notes and a variety of sources such as several informational videos on specific subjects. ØStudents regard visual representation as creative and thought-provoking processes that allow them to better understand the subject, rather than memorize the equations and key characteristics.ØStudents seem to appreciate the visual representation approach, which allows them to have a deeper understanding of the subject and a long-lasting knowledge. ØStudents perceive visual representation practice as a pleasant and informative experience. ØIt appears that students got benefits from visual representation practices and want to apply the approach to other classes. As for broader impacts, this project reformulates engineering curriculum in an effective way to nurture the creative problem-solving skillsets needed for future engineers. We also explore creative community activities such as exhibitions and workshops that will substantially increase awareness and engagement of faculty members and students including underrepresented and female engineering students.


Tian Luo, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, VA