High-technology firm encourages childlike openness
Portland, Ore. — High-tech industry demands creative thinking and one high-tech company believes relearning to think like a child may be a key to progress. At least that's the experiment going on at Tektronix Inc., a major employer in Oregon, as engineers, designers, and technicians return to the classroom for instruction from Sue Novotny, an elementary teacher who expands the learning horizons for talented and gifted fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders.
In the first class she gave these well-trained adults a problem: Move a brick 13 inches with only the power of a mousetrap.
Ridiculous? No. Each class member tackled the assignment and each found a different answer.
One engineer attached furniture casters to the brick to make it easier to move with mousetrap power. A technician moved the brick using pencils as rollers. Another engineer chose to bypass the use of wheels or rollers and instead applied the domino theory to some wobbly sticks gradually reduced in length.
Jim Tallman, an engineer with a different point of view, used the mousetrap to push a finely balanced brick off the table.
''The brick obviously traveled farther than the required 13 inches and I could have moved it many feet,'' he said.
To Sue Novotny, it's logical to teach adults what children learn.
If the adults could not read or do math, they would return to an elementary-type learning. If adults did not learn creative problem solving in elementary school, it's appropriate to start back, she reasons.
She delivers the same ideas to adults, presented in slighly different form, that she gives gifted children.
Ms. Novotny enjoys working with adults, but finds them less open in their approach to ideas. On the job, adults are aware of limitations and hierarchies and are fearful of making mistakes. They are sensitive to criticism from peers.
''Once adults erase things that hold them back, they are surprised to learn what they can achieve,'' she said.
Rules posted in class warn students not to explode with ''idea killers,'' comments like ''it won't work'' and ''it's been tried before.''
To replace ''idea killers'' Novotny teaches ''permissiveness,'' the right to state your feelings, to be original and different, to take your own time, to make mistakes, to be yourself, to experiment, to be excited about ideas, to love learning, to exercise your imagination, to risk looking foolish, to change your mind, and to encourage others.
Her five-point systematic approach to solving problems creatively consists of fact-finding, problem-finding, idea-finding, solution-finding, and acceptance-finding.
''Each step needs enhancement to persuade people to stay with the process. Meeting these steps is not a skill, it's an attitude,'' she said.
For gifted children, she often puts a box with something in it on the table with instructions to determine what is inside either in eight minutes or with 20 questions.
''The minute I answer 'yes' to a question, faces brighten. If they are wrong, there's frustration and panic, she said.
On some problems they hold ''blue sky sessions'' in which the class members add ideas, offer suggestions, and help one another as best they can.
During these sessions each wears a safety pin, understanding the acronym PIN to stand for ''praise,'' ''interesting,'' and ''needs.'' First, praise the efforts, next find something interesting about the project, and only then add what it needs.
Novotny remembers when she first learned about creativity and reels off the situations in which it stood her in good stead, because personal problems as well as scientific problems yield to creativity.
When she was in third grade, test scores indicated she was a candidate for the school's enrichment center.
''It was the first time I had a good time in school. I learned easily when it was fun and when the teacher liked me,'' she said.
Novotny carried these vivid third-grade memories throughout her teacher training and while she studied for her master's degree, always avoiding dull classes, and when she worked with children, remembering to create an environment in which children liked to learn and were encouraged to try.
Too much seriousness is the first way to kill a creativity class. So Novotny dresses in a dull, brown, oversize smock; a wierd, orange mop-head wig, crazy hat, and extended nose to become Ranatra Fusca.
''She is my alter ego, sometimes rude, sometimes in a hurry, but always handing out problems to solve. She's everything you don't need, but students pay attention to her,'' she said.
Children often ask to wear parts of her outfit, which so far hasn't happened in the adult class.
Tallman regards creative problem solving as a pertinent part of his work.
''It is a different type of thinking than we are taught in engineering where we learned to follow a formula. This class should be a freshman level class in all engineering colleges,'' he said.
John Stoops, design engineer, is using the theories from the class to create a digital voltmeter with a protective circuit, to allow a person using the meter to make a mistake without destroying the instrument.
Chris Davis, Tektronix engineer who evaluates oscilloscope designs said, ''Always before I worked on the scientific level. Now I know a combination of the scientific and the creative produces results.''
Barbara Lee, Tektronix design engineer with the assignment to develop a more reasonable, smaller oscilloscope with more functions, said ideas from the class helped her. She could not be specific because details are a trade secret, and the product is not yet on the market.
''All I can say is, when I start a new project, I remind myself my thinking CAN be unlimited,'' she said.
''That's the purpose of the class,'' said Novotny, ''whether with children or adults, we want them to be fluent, flexible, original, elaborative thinkers.''
Those who attended the class said it helped personally as well as professionally.
''Among other things we learned we can influence people in a positive way instead of stifling them. This is important for a department manager,'' said Tallman.
''Now when I interview engineers during a recruiting tour, I find out what each candidate knows about creative problem solving,'' said Stoops.
Perhaps Ms. Novotny put her finger on the greatest advantage.
''There's a certain fulfillment that comes from being creative. Creative people are happy, they generate options from which to make choices. Through choices they feel freer.'' she said.