Learning Should Learn How to Think About Thinking

Oct. 3, 2014
Some key players in the aerospace industry are rethinking how students learn to innovate, encouraging them to fail fast and often, and transfer knowledge quickly.

Today is the third annual National Manufacturing Day, with more than 1,500 events taking place around the country to address common misperceptions around manufacturing. It’s designed to address the skilled labor shortage that prevails, connecting with the younger generation to show them what industry has to offer.

There are some in industry who think that it’s not only important for students to start thinking differently about manufacturing, but start thinking differently. Period.

At an event in Boston last month hosted by Siemens PLM Software, NASA’s Charlie Camarda and Boeing’s Michael Richey described how their programs are challenging the next generation to tackle problems more creatively.

Camarda, senior adviser for engineering development at NASA Langley Research Center, insists that people can be taught to hone their talents in solution development. An inability to come up with solutions comes from a failure of the imagination, stemming in large part from the culture inside largely bureaucratic organizations.

A failure of the imagination, perhaps. But also a failure of failing. What every scientist understands and what every student needs to understand is the need to fail. “You have to fail to be successful, and you have to do that cheaply,” Camarda says.

It’s like voting in Chicago. Fail early, fail often.

The program that Camarda described is the Innovative Conceptual Engineering Design (ICED) epic challenge program, which uses open innovation and crowdsourcing to solve epic challenges in minutes or hours instead of months. The idea is to tap the creativity-rich resources available to help mature hundreds of creative concepts simultaneously, quickly and cheaply.

“Every child could learn by solving real-world problems which are of extreme personal interest, at their own pace using online tools and hands-on learning experiences,” Camarda commented.

As it happens, NASA has a handful of epic challenges at the ready—like how to repair a damaged shuttle wing leading edge during orbit, for example. To come up with solutions, breakthrough repair ideas were developed in a garage or lab, a few key experts were brought into the project (“the right experts at the right time”), and the problem was solved in less than a year.

“It’s a psychologically safe environment where we can fail and learn fast and furiously,” Camarda said. “If we had teams of students around the world working on this epic challenge, I have no doubt in my mind that we could come up with a solution. But it’s good for students, too, to be a part of this solution. We could teach them how to realize what their imaginations could only conceive.”

Camarda and his associates taught the ICED methodology to junior NASA engineers to develop an alternate land landing for the Orion space capsule. The program took about 30 young NASA engineers from various locations, a few students and four professors. “We immersed them in the problem, and taught them how to ideate, how to think outside the box,” Camarda said. Working in a learning factory at Penn State, they came up with “dozens of cool ideas.”

They settled on one that was biologically inspired by how a seed protects its embryo. And Sydney Do, a master’s student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), working with seven other students at Penn State and MIT, developed a solution in two years’ time, with very little money. “In only two years, these students developed not only a system that would work within the constraints of a system already being designed, but also saved a considerable amount of mass in a vehicle that was struggling with mass,” Camarda said.

Now NASA is scaling up the ICED program to reach a broader scope of students to solve a broader range of problems. “Imagine a world where students can learn, working on problems that are of extreme interest to them,” Camarda said. “We could develop epic challenges in every branch of every industry with an integrated curriculum of study in every knowledge domain at every educational level from CK-12 to graduate school to professional research scientist/engineer.”

The AerosPACE framework

An epic challenge is at the center of another program led by Boeing called Aerospace Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering (AerosPACE). It uses a multidisciplinary, distributed framework to develop critical thinking, creativity and innovation in students.

“The general consensus is that the traditional education system is just not producing the graduates with the skills that we need,” said Richey, an associate technical fellow who leads education research at Boeing. “It requires a different skillset.”

Major shifts and forces at work in manufacturing today include globalization with a distributive framework; a change in demographics; and a new social network (with digital natives). “We’re looking at how we can partner with government and industry and create a microcosm of that environment,” Richey said.

Information is created at an exponential rate every day, but getting access to that knowledge is critical, Richey said. People require access to very specialized information at particular instances in time. Engineering and advanced manufacturing can play a critical role in advancing personalized learning as a complex sociotechnical system of distributive integrators, he explained.

“This ‘complex adaptive social system’ requires us to rethink the boundaries of engineering and manufacturing education with the broader ecosystem of a sociotechnical system,” Richey said. “We need to close the gap between knowing and doing.”

The AerosPACE program is a self-organizing network where those involved understand and regulate their own learning. The idea is to create an educational ecosystem that enables self-study, self-directed teams, knowledge transfer through collaborations, and encourages guided trial and error. Data mining enables the mapping of the knowledge flows within the network.

“It’s a very rich ecosystem where knowledge is transferred. We can analyze every click—where they were, what knowledge was passed on,” Richey said. “We take all of this data across PLM and social platforms. We look at the novice-expert relationship, and accelerate the acquisition of knowledge.”

Through the program, students were able to collaborate across space, time and domains to design, build and fly an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that improves agricultural yield. “We brought high-level engineers into the design space with students,” Richey said, “and guided them on proper and improper designing.”

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