Iowa State and Michigan researchers help engineering and design educators teach new ways to generate ideas
AMES, Iowa — When engineering and design students are faced with a problem, how do they explore more ideas and arrive at better solutions? Armed with a new tool for developing concept-generation skills—called Design Heuristics—a team of researchers from Iowa State University and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has spent the past three years creating and disseminating instructional methods to incorporate the tool into engineering and design education.
Seda McKilligan, an ISU associate professor of industrial design, and Shanna Daly, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Michigan, received a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the project. They were joined by Michigan psychology professors Rich Gonzalez and Colleen Seifert. And last September, Keelin Leahy, an associate professor of technology education at the University of Limerick, Ireland, also joined the team as a postdoctoral research associate in industrial design at Iowa State.
This is McKilligan’s third NSF grant focused on this topic.
“The first NSF grant, which supported my doctoral dissertation research, involved identifying the design heuristics—or standard ‘rules of thumb’—used by practicing engineers and designers to generate ideas. The second looked at validation—can you bring the heuristics into classroom settings and evaluate their impact on students and ideation?” McKilligan said.
“The third grant is about developing instructional methods based on our earlier findings and distributing them to other institutions and engineering faculty across the nation. How can we create lesson variations based on Design Heuristics for educators who have different pedagogical goals and disseminate these outcomes to a broad audience?”
‘Deciding’ how to start
As a PhD student at the University of Michigan, McKilligan worked with a team on the first phase of the research. Through analyses of common characteristics of award-winning products, behavioral studies of student and expert conceptual designs, and a case study of a long-term project by a professional designer, they “extracted” 77 different design heuristics, or “cognitive prompts” that encourage exploration of a variety of solutions during ideation.
“These quick prompts don’t necessarily guarantee the best answer but help designers break out of the usual constraints of the problem,” McKilligan said. “Heuristics are intended to help designers move through a ‘space’ of possible solutions, guiding them to generate non-obvious ideas, leading to more creative solutions.”
McKilligan and the team developed a set of 77 flash cards, each featuring a single design heuristic, such as “flatten” (create a collapsible design that flattens the product and conserves space) or “rotate” (revolve a component or multiple components of the product about a pivot point or axis). On the front of each card is an abstract figure showing how the heuristic can be used and a description indicating its potential impact on the ideation process. On the back are two examples of how it is evident in existing consumer products.
“All of the titles, descriptions and examples are easy to understand and implement immediately. If, for example, I’m given the task of designing a new chair, I can take one card at a time and apply it to the problem. If the design heuristic on the card is ‘repeat,’ what are the existing pieces I can repeat—arm, back, seat, etc.—to make this seating unit different from other solutions?” McKilligan said. “Instead of fixating on the constraints, using the Design Heuristics tool helps me reframe the problem and think about it differently.”
Develop and disseminate
McKilligan and colleagues developed customizable lesson plans for individual and team exercises using the Design Heuristics cards for ideation initiation (generating initial concepts), idea development and transformation (developing, elaborating on or taking existing ideas in new directions), and subcomponent design (generating ideas for subcomponents of a product).
They then held workshops at professional engineering and engineering education organizations’ national conferences to teach faculty to use the Design Heuristics cards and lessons in courses at their home institutions. They also made the cards available for purchase and provided instructional materials on their website, www.designheuristics.com.
The research team next recruited educators already using these lessons to host workshops for colleagues at their own institutions in a train-the-trainer format.
“Our goal was to get at least 10 different institutions around the country to run workshops with an average of 20 participants each—then we would have 200 more educators who know this method and can integrate it into their courses,” McKilligan said.
Supporting the trainers
Leahy, the research associate, has been instrumental in coordinating and facilitating the train-the-trainer workshops, which have been held at seven institutions throughout the US so far.
“The workshop leader and I discuss the details in advance to identify the needs of the institution and the educators, to customize the Design Heuristics instructional materials for the specific audience,” Leahy said. “This ensures that their expectations are met and the workshop leader receives the required support to lead the session.”
In the past year, the research team has led additional workshops for hundreds of participants at American Society for Engineering Education, First Year Engineering Experience (FYEE) and Capstone Design conferences, among others.
“It’s really interesting to work with different groups of faculty members and explore how the Design Heuristics tool can be integrated into their classrooms, from high school to graduate school,” Leahy said.
“At the FYEE conference, the Design Heuristics workshop focused on idea initiation and nurturing creativity in freshmen, whereas at the Capstone Design conference, we focused on ideation at various stages of the design process through the use of the Design Heuristics tool for transformation and/or subcomponent design.”
Attendees of the conference workshops and the train-the-trainer sessions receive an evaluation survey, and researchers plan to interview the workshop trainers to learn how they can further improve and better disseminate this pedagogy.
In addition to traveling throughout the US as a resource for the train-the-trainer workshops and co-presenting conference workshops, Leahy has helped package the workshop content as a self-paced, asynchronous online course, “Cultivating Innovation in Your STEM Classroom with Design Heuristics,” available on NSF’s C2GEN website for professional development.
To date, the Design Heuristics tool has been used by more than 600 professionals and educators in nearly 100 different universities, schools and industries in 16 countries, McKilligan said. The next step is to create an online instructional network so instructors can share how they use the cards and the supporting teaching materials and in what context (a mechanical engineering capstone course, an interdisciplinary design class, etc.), report student learning outcomes and offer insights into enhancing the tool’s effectiveness.
“We want people to recognize this work as a leading effort in developing creative outcomes not only in industrial design or mechanical engineering but beyond. We want them to see the relevance of heuristics in their own fields—this will define true success for us,” McKilligan said.
Seda McKilligan, Industrial Design, firstname.lastname@example.org
Keelin Leahy, Industrial Design, email@example.com / Keelin.Leahy@ul.ie
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9829, firstname.lastname@example.org