The Design Thinking Action Lab online class has created the largest design team in the world, bringing together 45,000 students in fields ranging from engineering to education to business. Class member Melanie Thomas shares the connections she's found between design thinking, her work at Watlow Electric Manufacturing Company and her studies as a student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
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Genoa City, Wisconsin, USA
Continuous Improvement Facilitator, Watlow Electric Manufacturing Company
Sophomore engineering major, Milwaukee School of Engineering
When Melanie Thomas’ son became bored playing video games one day, she gave him a roll of duct tape and some cardboard, and told him to make something. He created a toy sword, and later, a cardboard boat for a 4th of July race near their hometown of Genoa City, Wisconsin.
The two of them worked together on how the boat would stay balanced and how to prevent it from flipping over. Sinking, Melanie said, was more of a concern than speed. She said the boat survived the race, and her son was able to paddle around the lake for a half hour before it started to take on water. The problem? Not enough duct tape.
“When we were putting the cardboard boat together,” Melanie said, “my son told me, ‘This is so much fun! I want to be an engineer.’ ”
She said adults, not just engineers, can benefit from bringing fun into their work, and wearing the lens of a child’s unbridled creativity and enthusiasm.
Melanie is an undergraduate engineering student at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Originally a biological science major, Melanie returned to school as an adult after her work at Watlow Electric Manufacturing Company sparked her interest in engineering. As a continuous improvement facilitator at Watlow, she promotes lean manufacturing and works with her colleagues to help reduce waste in order to improve safety, quality and efficiency. She also builds prototypes, designs error prevention methods and cell layout, and participates in her company’s 3P design events (production, preparation, process).
“I decided engineering was something I wanted to do, and then I realized I was doing it already,” she said.
The same playful thinking and creativity that Melanie utilizes at home is also reflected in her company’s environment.
“When we have a design event, we have to sign a contract that we will be 8 years old for the week,” she said. One warm-up exercise for an event involved drawing as many pictures as possible that represented the various ways in nature that an object can be gripped.
“The whole team was drawing little, childlike pictures of things like birds’ feet,” Melanie said. “The first time, we wondered what the point was, because we’re not going to use birds’ feet to hold machine parts, but it got us thinking creatively.”
The Design Thinking Action Lab course, she said, has validated her belief that creative thinking is vital to any discipline. Viewing the world as a child is one lens through which engineers can better understand their customers and the problems they’re trying to solve.
“We need to keep changing our points of view so we can look at problems from many different angles," she said. “This class will help teach engineers how to really understand the true problem. Then they can solve the right problem in the best possible way."
The design thinking process has helped Melanie with idea generation as well. Based on her experiences at home and at work, her advice to other engineering students is to practice unleashed brainstorming. Stretch beyond the first, obvious ideas and solutions. When generating ideas in a group setting, write them all down.
“No matter how dumb you think an idea is, put it down where everybody can see it. You might be onto something," she said. “Someone else might have the other piece of the puzzle to make the whole idea fit together.”
Melanie hopes to expand her idea generation skills throughout the course so she can apply them with her team at work, where she says a lot of her fellow engineers are “just big kids.”
“Childlike thinking is so essential,” she said. “Children are so creative, and adults lose that. It’s important to get that back if you can.”
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