Learning to Innovate

Learning to Innovate: A Skill That Can Be — And Must Be — Taught

Learning to Innovate: A Skill That Can Be — And Must Be — Taught

Dr. Aruna Shekar

Originally published: 2016 (PDMA Visions Magazine Issue 3, 2016 • Vol 40 • No 3)
Read time: 8 minutes

Learning to innovate is a skill that can be taught. And it’s a skill that must be taught.

There are only a handful of institutions worldwide that formally teach innovation. It is becoming critical for current and future generations of students to be able to analyze and solve problems and think creatively to produce innovative solutions. Complex changes are taking place in the world today, in terms of an aging population and related issues, new diseases, climate change and disasters, and so on that present challenges and opportunities for better solutions.

Companies are finding it increasingly challenging to generate complete solutions rather than just discrete products. For students to succeed in the 21st-century economy, typified by rapid technological and environmental changes, they must be taught how to approach new and unfamiliar problems they may face in future. This article presents a learning approach that assists students in developing competencies to solve design problems particularly related to engineering innovation.

Problems can come in various forms and complexities. Often, they are ill-defined and complex, involving many different elements, such as technical, cultural, social and financial dimensions. Solving such problems requires systems thinking, process knowledge and application of creative methods. The process of innovation is a form of structured thinking and problem solving, involving activities from multiple disciplines. Students need to develop their skills on how to identify an opportunity, gather information and make decisions throughout the design process.

Real-world problems require a different approach to simpler classroom problems. Real-world problems have many stakeholders; many more requirements, some of which may be in conflict with each other; and many more interactions. Students are taught how to research, map key stakeholder requirements and identify trends that could influence their designs. At the start of a project, students often find it difficult to deal with the uncertainty of not knowing what the final solution may be. Being innovative is about taking informed risks based on well-researched information, following a process, experimenting and iterating quickly, and arriving at the most appropriate solution and outcome.

Challenges in Education

Students often tend to compartmentalize courses, and do not appreciate the links between them, or sometimes staff from other departments are not aware of how engineering students may use some of the material they cover. Project-based learning attempts to address these integration issues, while giving students the opportunities to build their innovation skills and knowledge.

A lot has been written about the difficulties of including a number of topics into a time-constrained curriculum. It is important to remember in this debate that it is far better to teach students how to learn rather than cramming an already full curriculum. There must be a balance of courses that offer facts and theory, as well as design courses that help integrate and apply the knowledge. The project courses should cover the core principles of design and innovation and must be structured across the curriculum.

How Can We Teach Innovation?

In its simplest form, the innovation process includes identifying and responding to a need or opportunity, generating a number of potential solutions, evaluating them and implementing them. Students are guided throughout their project to use a generic model of problem solving, such as the innovation process shown in Figure 1. Besides showing the general phases in project work, the model also contains a number of activities and decisions that must be made before proceeding to the next stage.

Figure 1

For example, in the first stage of Project Definition, they must gather and analyze information that clearly defines the problem or opportunity, the context, the key stakeholders and their requirements. This information is presented in a project proposal that also includes details on the constraints, outcomes and a timeline.

Students are taught a generic design process of development, but are told to customize it to their specific project requirements. The major stages remain the same, and some of the activities within a stage may vary a little based on the product and context of the problem. The basic principles of innovation are covered, such as having a process, making informed decisions, applying systems and creative thinking, and taking definitive action.

Themes in Innovation Cources

In order to teach students how to apply innovation processes and methods, they are presented with project scenarios that are relevant to their field and practice. In the bachelor of engineering degree at Massey University, we provide students with project courses that complement their theory courses, with an increasing level of complexity each year. Some of the current themes are presented in Table 1.

Table 1. Themes for Projected Project-Based Innovation Courses



1 Global perspectives: Projects in partnership with EWB
2 Creative Solutions: Future-focused solutions
3 Product Development: New concepts for a selected company
4 Materials and manufacturing: Second half of the development process
5 Design within constraints
6 Capstone: Industry projects


Each of these projects expects a multi-disciplinary approach and a consideration of not only technical, but social, cultural and financial elements as well. The assessment rubrics are designed to capture these dimensions and draw out the understanding of these factors by students. For example, students are questioned on their considerations of sustainability in their solution by staff asking them how they intend to transport the product, or what the recyclable properties of materials selected are, and so on.

Innovation skills are best learnt by doing, so these project-based courses expose students to realworld issues that professionals in their field would work on. Typically, each course has a taught content and a practice component, and is supported by online study material. The taught content is delivered in short, guided workshops rather than the traditional 50-minute lectures.

These workshops take place in an open design space in which students are in teams of four, and staff can observe and question them during their project work. There is a lot of sharing and collaborative learning when students see other teams present their ideas and solutions.

Students are taught to ask a number of questions about a problem — how widespread the problem is, what could be the real causes, how important solving the problem would be, what is the value or impact of their solution, and so on. They are taught about open and closed briefs, and how they may start off quite broad, and as they get more information, they will get a better idea of specific direction and the space within which they can generate a solution. They are taught how to write a problem statement, and how this may be refined when new information comes to hand. They start to set target specifications, which are broad product attributes (such as “must weigh below 35 kg” or “must be made of steel”), and then the descriptions become more specific. It is good to examine what information a team has at each stage, and what information they may need in order to proceed to the next stage.

Students need to develop their skills on how to identify an opportunity, gather information and make decisions throughout the design process.

The students come to learn, early on, that there can be many solutions to a problem, and, hence, they are required to search, explore and create several solutions before settling on the most appropriate one to take forward to development. A comment from an engineering student recently: “If we have to build only one solution, then why bother coming up with several concepts?” They are informed that there is more than one right answer, and are asked how they would know that the first idea is the best answer to the problem. They have to justify to us why and how their final solution fits the needs and context of the problem.

The first-year, first-semester project has been part of our redesigned curriculum since 2012, and every year our students have won the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) National Competition (against a number of New Zealand universities) and the regional award in Australia, too. Each year EWB provides the background and context for these social engineering projects, which are based in villages of Vietnam, Timore Leste, Nepal and Cameroon.

These courses have been coordinated by the author, who has observed that students not only learn the process of innovation, but also gain an awareness of people and lives that are very different from their own. They realize the importance of understanding the problem from their perspective before jumping to solutions. Students learn that solutions need to be innovative and fit for purpose. They need to think about whether their solution is affordable, acceptable and appropriate to enduser needs, and how their solution can be implemented in remote villages for easy access.

The most recent winners came up with a simple and practical solution to address hygiene issues. Their solution is to make organic soaps (Figure 2c) out of ash that is produced in daily cooking in these villages. One of the judges at the national competition noted that the solution uses locally available materials, addresses the current problems of hygiene and spread of diseases, and has the “certainty of a positive difference to the community.” All the solutions shown here are simple, low-cost, environmentally friendly and sustainable. These solutions can be put together easily and maintained by villagers living in these contexts.


Tire and bamboo roofing


Clay stove


Organic ash soap




These are powerful ways of learning to innovate by experience through several projects, and have been found to be engaging and interesting for students. The approaches taken at Massey University to teach innovation will be of interest to academics and to those who are looking to offer new innovation training courses across departments at universities, high schools and industry.

About the Author

Dr. Aruna Shekar leads the bachelor of engineering degree major in engineering and innovation management for the School of Engineering and Advanced Technology at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. She is a foundation board member of PDMA New Zealand and has supervised many industry-based projects in product development over the past two decades.

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