Problem solving and creativity in Engineering: turning novices into professionals

Jonathan Adams, Stefan Kaczmarczyk, Philip Picton, Peter Demian


Recent UK and European benchmarks for both undergraduate and professional engineers highlight the importance of problem solving skills. They additionally identify creativity as an important capacity alongside problem solving for both novices and professionals. But, how can we develop and encourage these important skills in undergraduate engineers?

For many years researchers have explored how the differences between novices and experts might show educators techniques for improving the problem solving abilities of their students. Whilst it is often appreciated that knowledge and experience have a large influence on problem solving ability, it is not feasible to develop these fully in a three or four year degree course. There are, however, a number of other capacities relating to problem solving process skills that can be usefully developed, such as strategy, attitude and motivation.

A number of semi-structured interviews have been undertaken with engineering undergraduates at The University of Northampton, Loughborough University and Birmingham University in order to explore these issues. Analysis has been in the form of a phenomenographic study. The interviews extend their questioning and comparison beyond problem solving skills into creative thinking.

This paper provides a brief summary of previous published research alongside interesting findings from the interviews. Early findings have been used to inform an action research project to develop a problem-based learning (PBL) module to improve creative problem solving skills in undergraduate engineers. Emerging themes that have been identified include: identification of problem solving processes in the case of professionals as opposed to simply identifying skills required in the case of students, confusion with the concept of ‘creativity’ in the context of engineering; issues with motivation and ownership with regard to academic problems and significance being placed on real life activities involving groupwork as an effective way of teaching and learning creative problem solving.


Engineering education; Problem Solving; Creativity; Interviews; Professional; Novice; Phenomenography

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