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Embracing an improvisational mindset in engineering

Microphone Photo courtesy of Grant

Just say yes, start anywhere, and embrace your mistakes. These are not only the foundations of theatre improvisation, but also the key principles of problem solving and innovation in engineering.

For nearly 25 years, Joseph Holtgrieve has been supporting Northwestern University engineering students develop foundational knowledge for practice in addition to critical skills such as reflection, resilience, and perseverance. He acknowledges many of his students possess a mindset of perfectionism and aversion to failure which often paralyzes and stagnates students when encountering a particularly difficult challenge.

To provide students with more conscientious and productive attitudes towards problems, Holtgrieve partnered with an improv professional to develop the curriculum for Engineering Improv.

One of the primary concepts students learn is how to allocate their attention. Using the metaphor of the flashlight, students are taught that whatever it shines upon is the focus of their attention. However, the light doesn’t illuminate everything in a given scenario; you choose where to direct the light and can focus on things that boost, rather than exhaust, your energy.

To further illuminate this point, Holtgrieve discusses how the language associated with attention, such as pay or spend, is transactional in nature. The currency of attention is energy and the product is awareness; you have to invest wisely for optimal results.

Improv, as many students quickly discover, is not a fly-by-your-seat activity. Each scenario requires a significant amount of structure, preparation, and commitment before going to stage—much like engineering. During in-class activities, students learn to trust their team and allow solutions to develop organically. Rather than getting stuck in tunnel vision when obstacle arises, the students learn to direct their attention outside of their own self-doubt towards the options available to proactively solve the issue.

Responses to Engineering Improv are overwhelmingly positive with students saying it provided them with the attitudes and behaviours to not only become better engineers, but more proactive members of society. Learning is not just about always getting it right; sometimes you need to fail or take a different route to reach your goal.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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