Does Engineering Need More Right-brain Thinking? 4

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Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015
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Australia’s education system should place greater emphasis on using the right-hand side of the brain in order to produce more creative and capable engineering professionals.

That’s the contention of Sebastian Immaraj, a former project manager with MMG who has taught engineering and project management to students at the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture.

According to Immaraj, engineering education in Australia is excessively focused on analytical and numerical skills, to the immense detriment of the types of students it generally attracts.

“Traditionally, engineering courses have attracted left brain students – those who are more analytical and mathematical, and made them even more left brained,” said Immaraj. “This should not be happening – all it does is produce boring and introverted individuals.”

Immaraj asserts that the education system needs to train budding engineers to engage in more imaginative “divergent thinking” given the innately creative demands of their profession.

“Creative thought is not just about artists and musicians – engineering is inherently creative because it takes ideas and makes them real – whether it’s building a bridge, putting humans in space or designing a production line,” said Immaraj. “We need to take creative, right brained students and left brained students and teach them to be proficient with both sides of their brains – particularly the right side.”

Immaraj’s insights are the result of his personal experience as a project manager in the international mining sector.

“I have been impressed by the technical knowledge possessed by engineers, but often find them getting lost in detail, as well as somewhat tunnel-visioned and at times incapable of seeing the bigger picture,” said Immaraj. “Part of the reason for this is the narrow education that engineers have received.”

He also points to what he considers to be the shortcomings of his own training at the outset of his professional career.

“One thing that staggered me in my own education was the amount of non-visual learning – considering that engineering is so visual,” he said. “My education was predominantly scientific and mathematical with some minor application – I had no idea how a project fits into a broader picture.

“When I graduated as a civil engineer, I knew how to solve differential equations but I had no clue about how to design and build something.”

In addition to being more creative, Immaraj believes courses need to confer engineers with a more rounded skill set and a better understanding of the broader context in which their professional efforts takes place.

“The content of courses needs to reflect the wider areas that engineers are involved with – such as business, law, contracts, human resources, project management, marketing and finance,” he said. “These are taught in MBA courses, but they need to be brought into the undergraduate engineering degree so that young graduates can be more fully rounded professionals.”

In order to address the needs to confer students with more creative as well as pragmatic capabilities, Immaraj advocates the use of project-based teaching and systems thinking.

“Project-based learning addresses some of the existing shortcomings. In 2007, I went with a team of architecture students to the Cook Islands to develop a concept design for a concept building,” he said. “The students worked in teams to investigate local materials, cultural aspects, appropriate aesthetic designs, environmental issues and functional aspects before presenting them to the Prime Minister.”

“This form of learning took account of many of the broader aspects of engineering and required the use of lateral thinking.

“Systems thinking also needs greater emphasis in our education, as engineering deals with many technical and other parts working together for a common objective. Understanding the relationships and complexities between the parts is paramount.”

In addition to advocating for greater creativity in his area of professional expertise, Immaraj also pursues creative pursuits in his personal life, moonlighting as a live blues musician who both sings and plays guitar.

“Music adds further dimensions to develop broader and better ideas,” he said. “I believe being creative in the arts helps us to be creative in the sciences and engineering.”

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4
  1. Harry Fletcher

    Appreciate this editorial an absolutely agree. Engineering and design demands creative thinking and I think the educations system needs to ensure we turn out good Engineers who can innovate. Both Spheres of the brain are available for use.

  2. Michelle Farley

    Relevant editorial, with which I completely agree. The same, I think, can be said for the level of teaching around transferable competencies such as the ability to form collaborative & productive team relationships, and leadership skills. My experience is that these sorts of skills are far more difficult to learn than the technical materials, and at least as important!

  3. David A HOOD AM

    Couldn't agree more Marc. And, that's also why we need far more women in our engineering ranks. Because of the left brain influences, engineers struggle with appreciating the environmental and social impacts of their work. Too often we fall into a virtuosity frame of mind where we are so wrapped up in the wonderment of our own technical creations we can't appreciate why others don't feel the same…….. And, when we do look at environmental and social issues our left brain tends to reduce them to quantifiable, analytical problems and we propose spreadsheets and formula to show that our work is not only acceptable, but wonderful.

  4. Stu Walesh

    As suggested in the editorial, active participation in visual or performing arts is one way to engage both sides of the brain — to take a more whole-brain approach. I've found that creating visual art helps me see, not just look, and has greatly increased my awareness of the right brain's powerful functions.