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I'm teaching a problem solving course for engineering students (most around 19 years old) and want to increase their creativity levels. Any ideas for writing/ thinking exercises that could inspire them?

  • You know, right, that "creative writing" and "engineer" together form an oxymoron ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Feb 13 '15 at 22:43
  • @MassimoOrtolano: Not at all. Creative writing is two parts: good idea and good presentation. Engineers are absolutely required to be good at the first part - design, solve problems, create. They also suck at the second part, which is often a significant weakness, as they frequently need to "sell" their ideas - provide arguments in attractive form. So part 1 is a necessity, part 2 a very welcome extra; creative writing for engineers is a valuable skill which can and should be trained. – SF. Feb 14 '15 at 0:09
  • @SF. Disclaimer: I'm an engineer, I teach to engineers, and I was just kidding ;-) – Massimo Ortolano Feb 14 '15 at 8:23
  • Are engineers somehow different from non-enigneers? – user5645 Feb 14 '15 at 9:26
  • @what: Yes. A specific mindset, where precision of everything is strict to a tolerance. Where others asked "how long" will say "can't really tell", an engineer will give you a nice time bracket of between five milliseconds and seventy years with 95% certainty :) – SF. Feb 14 '15 at 11:59
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Your goal is to get your students to think about using standard skills in non-standard ways. Anyone can build a house; not everyone can build Fallingwater.

  • Dig up classic engineering conundrums from the past (pyramids, aqueducts, dams) and ask your students how they would solve them.
  • Find moderately ridiculous but not utterly implausible movie set pieces (Indiana Jones escaping from the rolling rock and shooting darts, not Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear test in a lead-lined refrigerator). Ask your students to design the traps.
  • Watch some recent Mythbusters episodes. Particularly in the last five years, they've branched out from busting urban legends to testing pop culture myths and viral videos. Look at the kinds of myths they choose to test, and the methods they use, and see what could be adapted.
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Creative writing and engineering overlap in worldbuilding. There's even a SE site for it!

Worldbuilding is the art of creating imaginary worlds or settings and describing how they work. This could be anything from a realistic neighborhood to an entire fantasy universe. Depending on the scope and style of the world, creating it may involve elements of science, history, sociology, art, philosophy, and more. Worldbuilding provides a backdrop for speculative fiction, role playing games, and futurology.

For the engineers, you might want to focus on settings dominated by technology, geography, or other environmental forces, and ask them to derive problems and solutions from it. For example, present a planet with unique geographical features and have them describe how its inhabitants would adapt their infrastructure to it. Or let them speculate on how a near-future world was influenced by a revolutionary technology like a space elevator or cold fusion.

For more inspiration, check out communities like Worldbuilding.SE or /r/worldbuilding

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My trick: Look for variables. That is: anything I could vary. I use this technique all the time when I need a burst of creativity. And it's a core feature of any workshop I teach that involves creativity in any way (and they all do).

Here's the process applied to generating fiction ideas:

  1. Write down any character, location, object, situation, action, theme, or other story element. It may be fascinating or mundane. It may be one you've thought about and written about extensively, or one that just popped into your head.

    Example: A house.

  2. Write down every variable you can think of for the story element. Ask yourself: What could I vary about this? What else could I vary? What else...? When you run out of ideas, ask yourself: If I could think of one more thing, what would it be?

    Example

    • Location
    • Age
    • Size
    • Shape
    • Color
    • State of repair
    • Who lives in it
    • How many people live in it
    • How much land
    • What kind of land
    • Timeframe
    • ...
  3. For each variable, write down every value you can think of. Heck, write down values you can't think of.

    Example: State of repair

    • The outside paint (last applied 30 years ago) is peeling...
    • Brand new, but warping because it was built over a landfill filled with tree stumps.
    • Kept in immaculate repair by a swarm of household staff.
    • Clean (no filth anywhere), but untidy. Books, 78rpm records, newspapers, unopened junk mail cover every flat surface.
    • ...
  4. Pick a few variables that seem interesting to you. Try different combinations of values for those variables. Randomly pick variables and values, and smash them together whether they fit or not. What story ideas does this give you?

    Example: Left as an exercise for the reader ;-)

Here's a writeup on my blog, with an example.

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A slightly different approach from the ones already posted (some interesting ideas here though!):

These days, it is rarely enough for an engineer simply to be an engineer. Maybe, to succeed, they need to innovate. Think of all the technology start-ups there have been over the last 30 years or so. What do they all have in common?

The answer: a dream. A vision.

What did they not have initially? Venture capital. Infrastructure. Customers. Early adopters.

If the engineering vision is in the head of the engineer, how does he get all those other things? He sketches that vision for other people - salesmen, customers, bankers, businessmen of all types ... most of whom will not even understand the concept.

You could, therefore, link creative writing skills with business skills with visionary ideas. An idea has no value if the only place it exists is inside the head of the inventor - so teach him or her how to be a visionary as well as a damn good engineer!

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First you need to remember that people are different. Some are most creative without rules, some are most creative when breaking rules and some are most creative within rules. The best creative engineers fall in the last category.

The rules that an engineer are bound by are physical (gravity, physical properties of beams, etc.) regulatory, and customer requirements. The responses should be embrace, accept and understand respectively.

Now for creative writing, many engineers have difficulty with this. (My Father is a great example, he can build the most unique and wonderful things, write great specifications and documentation, but is completely stymied by dialog.) To showcase their strengths I would start with a two part assignment where you first design something impossible, and then look at its impact on society. As to the impossible thing, you need specific rules on its design, but do not feel constrained in writing the rules to have them all make sense. Some people are less creative when they fully understand what they are trying to do, they just do it, When they are learning something they can play with it.

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For a simple and brief exercise: Ask them to write a first person account of a typical day as experienced by some object they would find compelling: a bridge, a computer server, a particle cannon, etc.

Encourage them to avoid too much anthropomorphic thinking. Experience the bridge as a bridge. How does the morning sun affect it? What stresses of weight, temperature, etc. does the bridge experience in the course of a day. What in the everyday changes the bridge undergoes best correlates to human emotion? How is it expressed?

And how about placing one of these objects in a crisis with a built-in story line? An approaching storm, the storm itself, the aftermath.

I envy you this chance to challenge how your students think about themselves.

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