Developing Engineering Creativity in STEM Programs in Chinese Universities

Developing Engineering Creativity in STEM Programs in Chinese Universities

Chunfang Zhou (Aalborg University, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9961-6.ch010


This chapter aims to formulate a proposal of developing engineering creativity by problem- and project-based pedagogies in STEM programs in university education in China. It will introduce the increasing needs of engineering creativity in China, deepen understanding of the concept of creativity and engineering creativity, and provide a review of diverse models of problem- and project-based pedagogies in STEM programs. This further brings a discussion on how to develop engineering creativity in STEM programs in Chinese universities in order to overcome the barriers caused by traditional education system and culture. A series of strategies will be proposed including supporting student group work, designing interdisciplinary project, facilitating staff development, and developing creative communities, etc. Briefly, this chapter has the significance of developing engineering creativity in China both theoretically and practically, and also implies how to develop problem- and project-based pedagogies in STEM programs in other cultures around the world.
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Understanding The Context In China

In contemporary China, both ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ have been highly emphasized in the S&T policies initiated by the national government that grows the attention to roles of R&D centers in universities in the Chinese national system (Orcutt, & Shen, 2010). As suggested by Li (2011), the shift from ‘Made in China’ to ‘Created in China’ is underway, so the strategies for enhancing innovation capabilities have come to occupy an important position in China’s development policy. In 2006, China initiated a 15-year ‘Medium-to-Long-Term Plan for the Development of Science and Technology’. The Plan calls for China to become an ‘innovative oriented society’ by the year 2020, and a world leader in science and technology (S&T) by 2050 (Cao, Richard, & Denis, 2006). In the changes towards ‘innovative nation’, Chinese universities are one of key institutions carrying national engineering research projects. The fruitful research output arising from publicly financed research projects and a growing political pressure to change universities’ traditional role of education and research, promote university entrepreneurship (Tang, 2009; Zhou et al., 2017).

However, policies have often failed to achieve their intended outcomes because the process of knowledge transfer is very complex and even sometimes the outcomes of policy are unpredictable (Brown, 2008). This can be indicated by the current debate on China’s S&T capability in relation to set goals to become an ‘innovative nation’, which has reached almost two polar opposite conclusions. On the one hand, there is a pile of data shows China has increased its output in several S&T indicators. For example, China has dramatically increased the number of patents, scientific articles and engineers that it produces. China has also progressed in developing a high-tech manufacturing sector. This progress has led some to believe that China will soon overwhelm the rest of the world in engineering and technology. On the other hand, there is an equally large pile of data that suggests China’s current technology capabilities are not that strong, and may remain weak for foreseeable future. Much of China’s progress in patents, scientific articles and engineer formation could be described as involving improvements in ‘quantity’, such as numbers of publications and patents, but not necessarily ‘quality’ in terms of societal uptake and impact of new knowledge. In addition, China’s improvements in high-tech manufacturing remain overly dependent on foreign technology transfer, as China has yet to develop domestic technology generation capabilities that truly rival those of the leading countries. Such debate calls us to rethink that studies on implementation processes must therefore take account of specific local contexts in which the policies are implemented. This also indicates engineering education in China is meeting crisis of fostering creative engineers who are able to develop original innovative work in their professional practice (Zhou et al., 2017).

Recently, the rethinking on STEM education innovation and creativity in China has driven that learning by projects and solving real-life problems has been considered as a promising pedagogy in STEM education on bachelor and postgraduate levels. For example, Project-Organized Groups (POGs) in some top universities. However, STEM education in China is still lecture-based model, the current application of student project models is to only one part within the traditional educational curriculum. Therefore, a systematic way of engineering education reform is required and to fostering creative learning culture is a condition. Accordingly, this chapter aims to propose developing problem and project-based pedagogies as a potential strategy to develop engineering creativity among STEM programmes in university education in China, which brings both theoretical discussions on creativity theories and practical suggestions for improving STEM education in China.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Creativity: Generally, creativity involves the ability to offer new perspectives, generate novel and meaningful ideas, raise new questions, and come up with solutions to ill-defined problems. It has been demonstrated multiple manifestations of the conceptualization: personal cognitive and social or emotional processes, family aspects, education, characteristics of the domain and fields, social or cultural contextual aspects, as well as historical forces, event, and trends.

Project-Organized Teams: Learning in project-organized teams is considered as a promising strategy for postgraduate level education. By this strategy, students have opportunities to participate projects supported by government or company. Usually, the project teams consist of supervisors and their students from different levels and diverse backgrounds. However, there are always some new recruits to enter teams and the graduates leave at every semester, so high personnel turnover rate exists, while most projects are at least one-year-long with aims of solving real engineering problems needed in society. The supervisors are professors in universities with responsibilities of leaders in these teams, as well the experts in some fields of engineering education. Therefore, for the STEM students, learning is organized through practical problems and in collaborations among group members, which may develop skills of creative thinking along with problem solving process.

Big C: While someone may have a new idea about how to run a country or a company, artists may develop new types of music, and scientists may develop new techniques or knowledge that may have a profound impact on society. This type of creativity has sometimes been called “big C” creativity.

Engineering Creativity: Creativity is a vital factor in “good” engineering, and creativity in engineering clearly differs from creativity in the other domains. For example, by contrast creativity in fine arts - a manifestation of creativity with no functional purpose, only aesthetic purpose – engineering creativity results from creativity with a purpose. This purpose is to create products in the broadest sense of the word – including physical objects, complex systems, and processes. The differences are pointed out that engineers produce devices or systems that perform tasks or solve problems. From this sense, engineering creativity has been defined as “functional creativity”. The most important aspect is the devices systems that perform tasks or solve problem – that is, it practically useful products.

Little C: Creativity may occur in personal and social matters or in undertaking an activity in a disciplinary or professional area. It is “know-how,” concerned with the skills involved in maneuvering and operating concepts and ideas in the physical and social world - including the skills of social interaction and engagement.

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