Creative and Critical Thinking in Engineernig

There is an increasing demand for innovative and creative professional engineers. To achieve these high demands, they are usually required to ask the right questions and think outside the box. This makes creative and critical thinking a central trait of their education and professional career development.

Dr. J.M. (Juan) Durán

Engineering is a challenging combination of scientific knowledge, technical know-how and societal facts and values. Within the interplay of these factor, many life-changing decisions cannot be made using only calculations, but also need sound argumentation based on partial knowledge. This qualitative argumentation requires much more than only logical or scientific reasoning, or even ethical deliberation, already taught elsewhere. It is an art that requires skilled analysis of problem areas using different stakeholder frames based on specific implicit and explicit assumptions, and differences in emphasis on prevailing facts, values and conceived problems. The course equips students with the necessary instruments to acquire this art and skills to avoid fallacies and prepare them for sound argumentation in normative and factual engineering matters.

The need of this course is aptly argued for in Kamp (2016) Adapting Engineering to Change. According to this publication engineers should be prepared to become increasingly more solvers of wicked problems, which are not well-structured and without a finite or denumerable set of correct answers. Instead they have only "satisficing" answers for which the terminating criterion reads "good enough.” Moreover, constructing the answers to these questions, engineers are increasingly surrounded by powerful AI software that takes over at least parts of their job. Consequently, they should be trained in skills in which human researcher excel, such as: asking the right questions, recognizing argumentative frames and hidden assumption, finding alternative frames and assess them, and thinking outside the box. The TU Delft Strategic Framework 2018-2024 also refers to critical thinking skills as instrument for “students to contribute to solving societal challenges.”

After having completed the course the student will be able to:

  • Foster independent critical and creative thinking skills regarding academic engineering projects, i.e. framing and reframing, out of the box thinking, critical and creative questioning;
  • Develop with the candidates an argumentative independent stance and a broad reflective perspective regarding:
    • The problem area of one’s own PhD project and its contribution to the area
    • Developments in the candidate’s area of specialization
    • Foster societal consequences of the candidates PhD project.
  • Provide argumentative structures of the normative descriptive relation of their PhD project
  • Creatively write propositions appropriate for their thesis
  • Discuss structures at the basis of these propositions

In the first meeting the basic argumentative tools will be taught and applied to standard situations.

  • Types of claims: factual; normative; explanatory; predictive; modal; etc.
  • Argumentative structures of monologue argumentations for factual claims  
  • Other types of argumentation: analogies, causal, means-end, and substance-feature argumentations; and some standard fallacies.

The teaching case is Galileo’s version of Aristotle’s argument for the claim that the earth does not move. The students exercise regards a debate about academic freedom versus academic justice. We also introduce the basics of framing and Socratic questioning, including the difference between subjective and objective (intersubjective) claims.  We also: 

  • Offer and teach some argumentative instruments to assess propositions and the underlying reasons
  • Develop diverging and converging critical skills
  • Socratic questioning of normativity research project
  • Formulation and assessing Thesis propositions

·       Kamp, A. (2016). Engineering Education in the Rapidly Changing World: Rethinking the Vision for Higher engineering Education. (2nd revised edition ed.) Delft: TU Delft, Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.

·       TU Delft Strategic Framework 2018-2024: Impact for a better society

·       TU Delft Doctoral Regulations & Implementation Decree, 2018.