Two Pitt Professors to Study Genesis of Innovative Ideas

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2008

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded two University of Pittsburgh professors a grant to study the source of the innovative spark that separates great products from good ones.
Researchers Christian Schunn, a psychology professor and research scientist at Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center, and Mike Lovell, an industrial engineering professor and the associate dean of research in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, received a two-year grant of nearly $400,000 from the NSF. The grant, awarded Jan. 1, will allow the researchers to launch the study, which could take at least 10 years to complete. The NSF awarded the pair a $160,000 grant last year to support preliminary work on the project.

The latest NSF grant applies primarily to determining the influence of design software and the laboratory environment on innovative thinking with an eye for developing better design tools, Schunn said. The larger—and more complicated—objective is to enhance innovation in engineering by identifying the factors that most often foster creative thought and design. The project stems from an initiative within the Swanson School to stress innovation in U.S. engineering education and help offset the declining popularity of American products that is largely attributed to inferior design and functionality when compared to European and Asian products.

“Companies always want better products, but nobody knows how to guarantee a great outcome,” Schunn said. “Sometimes engineers fail and sometimes they are so clever to exceed expectations—no one knows exactly what circumstances and tools make that difference. Product design is slow and done in groups, so it’s difficult to study.”

Schunn and Lovell will collect and analyze data on 60 teams of engineering students enrolled in the Swanson School’s Product Realization class, wherein students work with industrial sponsors to develop working products that address a real need. Some past student teams have patented the devices and methods created in class. Students in the study will work in an up-to-date lab space with access to the latest tools and software available to working engineers.

During the data collection phase, the students will be videotaped as they work through the problem-solving and design processes toward a working prototype—an expected 3,000 hours of video all together. The students also will keep logbooks of their ideas, progress, and setbacks—records of the entire process. Schunn said that he and Lovell have already collected data on about 30 teams and begun analyzing it.

Once the students complete their projects, Schunn and Lovell will compare the respective logbooks and videos of the outstanding projects to those from the good-but-not-revolutionary ventures. They hope to determine the group communication styles, project organization, tools, and other factors that are most related to innovative thinking among the students and disseminate those findings as guides for designers and educators. For example, one pattern noticed so far, Schunn said, is that when students create a physical model early on their thinking becomes centered on that object and less exploratory. Thus, a possible design strategy might be to reserve physical models for later stages.

Several other Swanson School faculty members also are analyzing—and hope to improve—engineering education, which is the time when students form their basic approach to product development and problem solving.

In September, the NSF awarded $2 million to a multi-institutional project spearheaded by Pitt engineering faculty members to extend the use of open-ended case studies known as model-eliciting activities, which focus on difficult technical and ethical questions. The researchers will identify the areas of the problem-solving process educators should focus on most and present the results to teachers at all educational levels. Information on that project is available on Pitt’s Web site.