Engineering demands creativity and innovation to solve complex, interdisciplinary problems. But creativity and innovation skills are not emphasized in many traditional engineering courses. So engineers enter the workforce with essential analysis skills but may struggle to think outside the box when it comes to creative problem-solving.
The importance of divergent thinking
In the typical technical workplace, engineers are asked to design devices, systems, or processes, which can have conflicting goals and multiple potential solutions. In general, the process for approaching these tasks is called the engineering design process. The engineering team is given or identifies a problem, defines the scope of the problem, generates many ideas for solutions, evaluates the ideas, and proposes a solution. Throughout this process, engineers engage in convergent and divergent thinking.
Convergent and divergent thinking
Convergent thinking is linear, involving going through a list of steps to get to a single correct answer. In contrast, divergent thinking is exploring different directions from an initial problem statement to generate many possible ideas. In the design process, engineers use divergent thinking when generating ideas, so they can identify a wide range of potential solutions. They use convergent thinking when evaluating ideas to determine the optimal solution.
Both types of thinking are important in finding the best final solution, but divergent thinking is particularly important for developing innovative solutions. However, divergent thinking skills are largely ignored in engineering courses, which tend to focus on a linear progression of narrow, discipline-focused technical information.
How mindfulness promotes divergent thinking
Mindfulness is defined as intentionally paying attention to openness, kindness, and curiosity. Although psychologists continue to explore the exact mechanisms by which mindfulness facilitates divergent thinking, there is convincing evidence demonstrating a causal link between being mindful and being able to engage in divergent thinking.
While previous research on mindfulness and divergent thinking has focused on general populations, our research sought to explore the relationship between mindfulness, divergent thinking, and innovation, specifically among engineering students and recent engineering graduates.
Stanford researchers performed two studies. In the first, they looked at the impact of 15-minute mindfulness meditation on divergent thinking performance among 92 engineering students at Stanford University. Previous studies have shown that a single meditation can improve idea generation in general student populations.
Before the experiment, all participants completed a questionnaire to measure baseline mindfulness.
Then, participants were divided into a treatment group and a control group and asked to complete two divergent thinking tasks. One is a generic idea generation task, where they were told to list as many alternative uses for a brick as possible. The second task was an engineering design task, where they were asked to list all the factors they would consider in designing a retaining wall for a river flood scenario. In the treatment group, the participants were guided through a 15-minute meditation before completing the tasks. In the control group, the participants watched a 15-minute video on stress-reduction before completing the tasks.
In the second study, researchers analyzed survey results from approximately 1400 engineering students and recent graduates across the U.S. to look at the relationship between mindfulness and innovation. They drew from the longitudinal Engineering Majors Survey, which is led by one of us, to measure baseline mindfulness and confidence in one’s ability to be innovative.
Results found that baseline mindfulness predicted innovation self-efficacy across our engineering sample. Interestingly, a particular component of mindfulness, called a mindful attitude, was the strongest predictor of innovation self-efficacy. While many studies focus on the attention aspect of mindfulness, our work suggests that the more essential component is the attitude with which you pay attention – or whether you have an open, curious, and kind attitude.
Having an open and curious attitude is referred to as «beginner’s mind» — the capacity to bring fresh eyes to a problem and engage in new perspectives on how to solve it. By remaining open to experiences, we are more likely to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, which is crucial to generating original ideas. Having a kind attitude is an aspect of self-compassion, which protects against harsh self-criticism and a fear of failure, inspiring people to take risks and explore uncharted territory, leading to novel solutions. Mindfulness supports both of these.
These studies have important implications for engineering education and for the technical workforce.
To solve complex interdisciplinary problems, engineering requires imagination and innovation. Nevertheless, in many conventional engineering courses, imagination and innovation skills are not emphasized. Engineers are now joining the workforce with valuable analytical skills, but when innovative problem solving tend to “think outside of the box.”
In the standard workplace, engineers are expected to create tools, systems, or processes that may have competing goals and multiple possible solutions. Generally, it is called the engineering design process to meet this mission. When the design team is identified, or a problem is identified, the nature of the problem is decided, several ideas are produced for solutions, thoughts are evaluated, and solutions are proposed. Throughout the meantime, engineers participate throughout convergent and differentiated thinking.
Convergent reasoning is linear, with a sequence of steps to find the right answer. Specific reasoning then explores various ways to produce other potential thoughts from an initial problem statement. Specific thinking is used by engineers in the design process while creating ideas to define a wide variety of possible solutions. When testing solutions, they use convergent reasoning to decide the best solution.
All kinds of ideas are important for the best solution, but divergent thoughts are particularly crucial for the creation of creative solutions. In Engineering Courses, which tend to focus on a linear development of narrow, technically oriented knowledge, however, differentiated thinking skills are largely overlooked.
The importance of consciousness
Why consciousness encourages divergent thinking, Intentional focus with openness, kindness, and curiosity is characterized. While psychologists continue to investigate the exact mechanisms by which attention promotes divergent thinking, compelling evidence demonstrates a causal connection between the perception and capacity for divergent thinking.
In the course of previous research on conscientiousness and divergent thought, our study was aimed at exploring the connection between attitude, a difference of opinion, and creativity, specifically between students of engineering and recent graduates of engineering.
Two studies have been conducted. For the first study, researchers looked at the influence of a 15-minute meditation on the different thinking output for Stanford University among engineering students. An earlier study showed that a single meditation in general student populations could increase the generation of ideas.
All participants completed a questionnaire before the experiment to test basic knowledge. The participants were subsequently split into a therapy group and control group and requested to perform two divergent thought tasks: a generic concept creation task to list as many potential uses as possible for the brick, and an engineering task to list all the considerations in the design of a fluvial retention wall. The patients were followed by a 15-minute mediation in the treatment community before the study was done. The participants in the control group watched a 15-minute video on stress management before the activities were completed.
In the second research study, researchers looked at the connection between mindfulness and creativity in over 1000 engineering students and recent graduates around the U.S. They took advantage of the quantitative survey conducted by one of us to assess the basic knowledge and trust that we can be creative.
The research found that in the engineering study, baseline consciousness projected innovation self-efficacy. Ironically, the best predictor of innovation self-efficacy was a specific aspect of mindfulness called mindful attitude. Although most studies concentrate on the dimension of focus in learning, our research indicates that your attitude – or whether you have a curious, open, and friendly attitude – is the main element.
By being open to experience, we are more likely to make connections between seemingly unrelated concepts that are important for original ideas. Self-compassion is one factor that prevents people from difficult autocracy and insecurity about failure and encourages people to take chances and explore unexplored terrain, leading to new solutions. Mindfulness follows these two.