When Scarlett Miller started teaching a first-year class in engineering design at Penn State a few years ago, she noticed something odd.
“I would see the students come up with really cool ideas [for new inventions], and then we’d get to the final prototype of the semester, and somewhere along the line something had happened,” she says. The students had left their most original ideas behind.
Miller, an assistant professor of engineering design and industrial engineering, had studied creativity in her graduate work — specifically, how to teach and encourage others to come up with promising new ideas. That students who already had good new ideas would quickly abandon them came as a big surprise.
So she and her lab began investigating how her novice designers decided which ideas to pursue. At the start of each semester, she surveyed the students to assess various personality traits, then had them form groups of four and gave them their assignment: Design and build a new device to froth milk for use in cappuccino. Emphasis was on the new — the students were told they would be graded on the novelty of their device, as well as on its function.
Each student sketched several ideas, then privately rated the creativity of each design generated by everyone in the group and indicated which one he or she thought the team should build. That allowed Miller to see which ideas each student favored before hearing — and possibly being swayed by — their teammates’ opinions. Then each group discussed its ideas and chose one to develop into a prototype. Miller recorded and analyzed their deliberations, hoping to learn where in the process the best new ideas got left behind — and why.
“If we can understand why the design decisions are being made, then we can start developing tools to help creative ideas to be more thoughtfully considered and not just quickly discarded,” she says.
The pre-project surveys revealed that many personal traits correlate with which ideas a person will favor. Extroverted students push harder for their ideas to be chosen than do more introverted students, for instance, but that sense of confidence in their own ideas varies by gender.
“We found that women are more likely to support or select their team members’ ideas, even if their own idea is good,” says Miller — and they choose those other ideas even in the initial, private assessment. “Men are more likely to select their own ideas, regardless of whether they’re good or not.”