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Susan K Perry Ph.D.

Are Engineers Creative Like We Are?

Scientists practice a form of "science fiction" to solve problems.

Brain Cauliflower I kid myself that I think like a scientist, and sometimes maybe I actually do. Yet engineers are a specialized breed. My father and ex-husband were engineers; one of my sons is also one. They do not all think alike, nor do any of them think quite like I (and you?) do. But we are occasionally capable of managing what I'll call cross-species communication. That's why I wanted to share, in this post, the results of studies done by Nancy J. Nersessian of the School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology, and her Ph.D. level researchers.

Nersessian began by posing the question, "How do engineering scientists think?" The resulting journal article in Topics in Cognitive Science quotes Daniel Dennett: "Just as you cannot do very much carpentry with your bare hands, there's not much thinking you can do with your bare mind."

The researchers, who received training in ethnography, qualitative methods, and cognitive-historical analysis, focused on the day-to-day activities at two laboratories, specifically around the use of artifacts (models or devices). These artifacts were complex entitles such as a neuron dish that represented brain activity.

According to Nersessian,

Our use of distributed cognition as a framework for interpreting the research practices of these laboratories helps to make sense of how engineering scientists think by means of the artifact models they design and build. In negotiating the in vivo-in vitro divide, they are in a real sense practicing what the researcher in Lab D called "science fiction." They translate their understandings of the phenomena under investigation into real-world simulation models and revise their understandings through simulation.

Reading this, I find myself making connections to the ordinary artifacts some of us use when solving more artsy creative problems. One example might be when I print a selection of evocative photos from the Internet of faces and settings and then see how the images stimulate my brain to develop characters and storylines. Not exactly brain science, but such an example serves as a useful artifact to help grasp something more complicated.

* To read the abstract of the journal article, click here .

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