Creative Engineers Solve Real-World Problems

By Catherine Probst

Today’s complex engineering issues in fields ranging from transportation to health care demand innovative solutions. But who is more adept at handling these problems: the creative thinker or the analytical engineer?

Mason structural engineering professor Tomasz Arciszewski believes the best solutions come from those who can be both creative and analytical.

In fact, creative engineering is a new movement in the field, and Arciszewski developed a series of unique undergraduate and graduate courses related to engineering creativity and inventive design. The courses, which are offered through the Civil, Environmental and Infrastructure Engineering Department, attract students from disciplines across the university, including engineering, information technology, psychology and physics.

“One of the goals of these courses is to encourage the engineers of the future how to use the right side of the brain — the creative side — to achieve creative problem-solving,” says Arciszewski. “By activating the entire brain, students are better equipped to approach and think about a problem from a variety of angles, thus opening the door for more advanced solutions.”

The courses, he notes, take cues from prominent figures of the High Renaissance such as Leonardo da Vinci, who possessed intense curiosity and inventive imagination.

Students enrolled in CEIE 411 Introduction to Design and Inventive Engineering this past spring had the opportunity to put these approaches to life and science to the test. The course culminated in an inventive design challenge in which three student teams were given real-life problems to solve.

A student discusses his team’s final project in the inventive engineering class.

Students prepared their concepts using one or more of the approaches they learned in class, and they ultimately developed innovative and efficient solutions to their group’s particular problem. The students presented their results to a panel of industry leaders in psychology, law, business, technology and design. The student judged to have the best design was encouraged to apply for a patent.

“It’s very important that students participate in solving these challenges so that they understand how the principles they learned in class can be applied to everyday problems in the real world,” says Arciszewski. “These challenges are intended to get them thinking outside the box, as well as examining a situation from all angles.”

One challenge, presented by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, D.C., tasked students to develop a cost-effective and environmentally safe approach to dredging navigation channels in rivers and other bodies of water.

Another project devised by Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, Mich., challenged students to design a new type of gas storage system tank for a natural-gas vehicle — something that was cost-effective and would not take up too much space.

And Commonwealth Orthopedics in Fairfax, Va., challenged the third student team to create a new human lumbar spine bracing system to be used in spinal surgery. The system currently in use leaves patients with restricted motion and is painful. The hoped-for option would be removable, allow a shorter recovery time and would strengthen the back over time.

Hannah Saadoun, a senior civil engineering major, worked on the spine bracing project, which was deemed as having the best design. She firmly believes that the most successful engineer is one who is first and foremost creative and artistic.

“A good engineer has to exercise the left and right sides of the brain, and this is what I think is missing today in the engineering world,” says Saadoun. “At first, I was very intimidated by the complexity of the project we were given, but Dr. Arciszewski helped me learn how to face a problem that is completely foreign and be able to embrace it. He encouraged everyone to see the glass as ‘half-full’ instead of being consumed by negative thoughts.”

Saadoun will spend the next year preparing materials to file a preliminary patent for her design.