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Your background is in engineering and creativity. Is this a relatively rare combination and should have more overlap between these two domains?
Yes it is. In my view, everyone needs to be creative whatever profession they are in, including engineering. Engineers are problem solvers, so are designers and people in various other artistic fields. In all those disciplines problem-solving needs to be creative.
You are involved in the education sector at present. How can the education system produce students who are free-thinking but still have the technical know-how? Can students be taught the hard sciences while learning to be open-minded?
Absolutely. That’s what makes a good inventor or designer. In schools, the barriers between sciences and arts need to be broken down. When I was in school, if you were good at sciences they pushed you into that box but they can’t accept that you might also be good at art.
My strongest subjects were maths, art and physics so I had to decide at a relatively young age whether I wanted to go down the arts route or the sciences route – there was no way I could do both. Giving kids a whole-brained education is essential.
Would you see the old-fashioned notion of ‘two cultures’ of arts and sciences as an artificial division?
Yes. I’ve studied both. When I did engineering at university there was no artistic side to the degree so I had to take evening art classes. The boundaries exist right across society but must be broken down because everyone can be creative.
At university level, what can be done to try to encourage scientists to take modules in subjects outside their discipline?
I’m the programme director for a product design degree and within that course and the boundaries have been totally broken down. For other courses, modules in creative thinking would help. The more cross-disciplinary education you receive, the better you are at problem solving.
You are involved in the Imaginate competition which encourages school-going students to design new products. What kind of inventions have young people come up with?
I wanted to make the children of Ireland more creative in secondary school so I set up a competition called Imaginate. All schools across Northern and southern Ireland were invited to design an object for the classroom of the future. It could be done on computer or pen and paper so they didn’t really need any materials.
I put up a video telling teachers how to run brainstorming sessions in a 40 minute class. 1,500 students registered and we received some amazing ideas. Most of the children solved a real problem that they face.
Can you give some examples?
We had robots which could replace teachers and had shoes that would clean the school floors as they walked. Improving schoolbags was a major theme: hovering schoolbags, bags with popcorn machines, bags with hidden umbrellas – we had ideas for all the things students want to make their lives easier. One of the categories was won by a boy who designed a totally ergonomic desk which can be adjusted to any height. It spins 360 degrees and includes a built-in laptop.
Many of the ideas are feasible but some – like the hovering schoolbag – sound less likely to be on the market any time soon.
Well, not yet, but the students had no restrictions and they really tried to find various ways to solve problems. One student suggested using a squid as a source of ink to solve a common problem of teachers having to refill their ink cartridges for writing on the whiteboard. Pens with built-in spell-check functions were also proposed.
What did you take from the experience of organising the competition?
Talking to the students at the awards ceremony, I found that students are often put into a box and told to follow a particular path, rather than encouraged to be creative. At school, teachers often don’t tell young people they are creative, but after the competition they felt they were creative people and that’s something everyone should feel.
I set the competition up in my spare time and am trying to get Imaginate run around Europe. It’s very simple to run. I have a plan that can be rolled out in any country and next year in Ireland I’m hoping to bring it to primary as well as secondary.
You have spoken in the past about having more creativity in education. Do you mean more creativity is needed in how teachers teach, or that students should be learning more about being creative?
Both. When teachers teach, you obviously need some boundaries. You can’t just have everyone running around freely. But, as with Imaginate, you can’t give them boundaries right at the beginning. You also have to teach the creative process.
Children are actually the most creative people and they become less so if those skills are not taught. More whole-brained education would foster creativity right through to university level.
You are involved in projects to encourage getting more girls into science and engineering courses. Why is this important and why has it traditionally been a problem?
A lot of females associate it with that stereotypical image of geeks – men in white lab coats. They don’t see it as an appealing career but they need to learn that that there is more to being a scientist than that stereotype suggests. As well as that, in all jobs where you’re designing things, you are creating things for everyone and you can’t just have men inventing everything. It’s about understanding what the users really want.
Part of the problem is that if you go to a school and ask a child who designed their trainers they think of a fashion designer. But in fact Adidas and Nike employ engineers to design soles, spring pockets and improve comfort.
Are some of these boundaries extremely difficult to break down given how entrenched they are in society?
What I do is go into schools and talk to girls or mixed groups about what I do. I’m a role model and can talk about all the different careers they can do through science and engineering.
Do you still invent things?
I’ve had a book of ideas since I was eight years old. I think everyone is creative but the difference is some people write them down and want to make them a reality.
What has been your contribution to the manifesto for Creativity and Innovation?
It should be out in October. My contribution has been in the parts related to creativity and innovation in education, and also in the role design has to play in our future.