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LETU Wins $300,000 NSF Grant for Dr. Ben Caldwell's Engineering Creativity Research


LeTourneau University has received a National Science Foundation grant award for $299,820 over three years in support of Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dr. Ben Caldwell's research on improving engineering creativity and problem solving.

The project is titled "Understanding How Engineers Draw from their Knowledge and Experience to Solve Design Problems Creatively."

Caldwell's research seeks to understand how people generate ideas and how to then teach that skill effectively. And since the research borders on psychology, Caldwell has LETU psychology professor Dr. Vicki Sheafer assisting as research associate on this grant.

"Engineers regularly solve problems, and in the process, often come up with several options," Caldwell said. "We want to help them explore those options and teach them how to select the best one. If we can understand better where creativity fits into the problem-solving process, we can better teach engineers how to solve problems."

The research project provides subjects with two types of tasks: problem finding and problem solving.

On the problem finding task, subjects are asked to generate numerous ideas on how they can use a specified object, such as a drinking cup.
On the problem solving task, subjects are presented with a problem and asked to find multiple ways to solve the problem.

"For example, the problem could be that drying dishes by hand takes too much time. How do you solve that problem?" Caldwell said. "Solutions could include everything from putting dishes in a dish drainer, or in a preheated oven, or coating dishes with a fast-dry rinse material, or using a hair dryer, or even using paper plates, instead. We take their responses and judge how broad and novel their ideas are to determine their level of creativity."

Caldwell said he started the project specifically with engineering majors and has now added psychology majors. The research will look at STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) versus non-STEM creativity and problem solving.

"Our goal at LeTourneau University is to produce graduates who excel at being creative, and at turning that creativity into solutions that serve our world," said LETU dean of Engineering Dr. Ron DeLap. "Dr. Caldwell's research will be instrumental in furthering that goal. The National Science Foundation's support of this effort is an affirmation of the quality and strength of our professors and of the engineering program at LETU."

Caldwell has plans to partner with other universities such as Clemson University and the Air Force Academy to find additional subjects.

Caldwell's other research interests include mechanical engineering design methods and tools, designers' use of functional representations in conceptual design and modeling functionality and interactions of mechanical systems to support conceptual design.

He earned his bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees from Clemson University in 2007, 2009 and 2011, respectively.

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