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New Perspectives on Teaching Innovation to Engineers: An Exploration of Mental Models of Innovation Experts

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Learning From Experts

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1100.1 - 22.1100.12



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Paper Authors


Indira Nair Carnegie Mellon University

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Eden Fisher is the Director of the Masters Program in Engineering and Technology Innovation Management (ETIM) and Professor of the Practice at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Fisher holds a B.S. in Chemistry from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Engineering & Public Policy from Carnegie Mellon. She worked in technology innovation for over 20 years at ALCOA.

Indira Nair is Vice Provost and Professor Emeritus in Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon. She has a Ph.D. in Physics from Northwestern University and has worked in education at high school and university levels.

Mustafa Biviji holds a B.S. in Electronics from Bombay University and a M.S. in Engineering & Technology Innovation Management from Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Biviji's current position involves innovations in alternative energy.

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Eden Fisher Carnegie Mellon University

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Mustafa A. Biviji Carnegie Mellon University

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In the 21st century, society and policy makers are looking to technologicalinnovation not only to solve specific challenges, but as a primary element ofoverall economic growth and success. As a result, educating for innovation hasbecome an imperative for engineering. While some elements of innovationeducation have been in practice for some time, the increased focus on this non-traditional topic raises questions, including: Can innovation truly be taught in anintentional and systematic way? What content is important, and what approachesare helpful? What can we learn from innovation experts that would contribute toinnovation education?We have started this inquiry by using a “mental models” approach. In the firststage, we are eliciting expert mental models about innovation and innovationeducation, based on a set of open-ended interviews with a diverse set of innovationexperts. The prompts for these interviews focus first on defining innovation andthen describing what fosters innovation: the environments, motivations, skills andexperiences that are part of each expert’s mental model. Finally, the interviewselicit the elements and approaches to innovation education that are most alignedwith each expert’s mental model. The result is a scheme of how each expert thinksabout innovation and the implications for innovation education. The key elementsfrom these interviews are integrated into composite concept map, which includesboth promoters and inhibitors of innovation success.Subjects with considerable expertise in innovation were explicitly sought for theseinitial interviews. The experts are primarily expert practitioners: recognizedinnovators and effective innovation managers with expertise gained at both start-upcompanies and innovative corporations. Experts also included knowledgeableeducators and scholars of innovation from academia.This paper will present preliminary results based on 10 interviews and the resultinglessons about innovation and implications for the design of educational objectivesand approaches. Our results point to several factors including the role of deepexpertise coupled with an urge to share and learn in allied fields; ability to work inan open-ended environment, an understanding of societal needs and behaviors, anda willingness to accommodate risk-taking and individuality. These “non-technical” factors are central to successful innovation. Innovation experts dependupon expertise developed over a long period of time, a challenge for curriculumdesign and development. This combination of depth and breadth may require tenor more years of study and experience. Similarly, years of experience withmultiple projects appears key to developing the pattern recognition ability fordecision making that is associated with successful innovation management.Facets of engineering education in general may provide misconceptions of theinnovative environment if we do not make students cognizant of these aspects anddevelop ways to simulate these in the academic setting.By understanding expert mental models of innovation, engineering students can beprepared with both specific skills for early career contributions to innovation, aswell as insights into key levers for the overall innovation system. By teachingthese insights, educators may influence ongoing, self-directed educationthroughout an engineer’s career, enhancing the value creation from innovationeducation.

Nair, I., & Fisher, E., & Biviji, M. A. (2011, June), New Perspectives on Teaching Innovation to Engineers: An Exploration of Mental Models of Innovation Experts Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18520

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