School is out. Has been for a few weeks. And the end of every school year brings the usual rush of awards assemblies, especially in junior high and elementary schools. This year was no different. But let me first give you a little background into why we found this year’s awards assembly a little…well…strange.
I am the designated math tutor in my house. Yet another benefit – or perhaps implied responsibility – of studying Engineering in college. But even though each of my kids has at least some natural ability in math, each complains, at least a little, about studying math. Complaints cover the typical gamut: “Math is boring!”, “Math is too hard!”, “Math is stupid!”, “Why do I have to study math – I’ll never use it?” If you field the math homework questions in your house, you’ve no doubt heard similar complaints. But despite the grumbling and groaning from my kids, semester report cards always show satisfactory understanding.
Now back to my end-of-school-year-awards discussion. My daughter’s school always sends my wife and I a notice when she is up for an award, but the letters typically mention little beyond high-level details. A week or two before the end of school, we received the traditional letter inviting us to the assembly to support our daughter as she received an award in math. My wife and I scratched our heads. My daughter was equally perplexed. An award in math? Recalling that she is usually the most vocal of our three children when complaining about math homework, an award for stellar achievement in the science of numbers seemed unlikely. What award could she possibly be receiving in math? Midway through the awards assembly her math teacher solved the mystery. My daughter was called to the podium and recognized for being her class’s most flexible thinker. Flexible thinker…hmmm. We wondered what being a flexible thinker really meant. Had her teachers uncovered some sort of latent mathematical ability? Should we nurture and fertilize this “flexible thinker” thing in hopes of harvesting a full-blown math genius? Were we taking the initial steps toward a full-ride MIT scholarship (which would be ironic since my daughter wants to be an author and write novels — maybe she could right stories about math geniuses)? We were puzzled. But after a bit of thought, and within the context of a junior high school math class, I think I have figured it out. For my daughter, being a flexible thinker simply means the ability to think about math problems in a sort of out-of-the-box-non-conventional way. Which fits, since my daughter is certainly a bit out-of-the-box in many ways. She’s pretty sharp and quite creative to boot (okay, just a bit of “Dad Pride” showing through here). This all leads to a sometimes unusual – although not always practicable – approach to solving math problems. Homework sessions – amidst the whines noted earlier – are lightly sprinkled with laughter. Not the “Hey, we’re having a great time!” sort of chuckle, but more the “How in the world did you come up with that?” belly laugh. Oh yeah, and despite being a recent inductee into teenage-hood, she still talks to me – which I think is amazing. If you have teenage daughters yourself, you know what I’m talking about.
Since the awards assembly, I’ve thought a bit more about my daughter’s award and how the flexible thinker concept might apply to mechatronic system development. How can we apply flexible thinking to engineering design? Here are just a couple of examples.
In system design, flexible thinking means taking creative or unconventional approaches to design challenges. We often learn to think and do things in standard ways. It’s human nature. We learn a way of doing something, a path to a defined goal, and we stick with it, stay with the known. But in doing so, we can easily close ourselves off to other possibilities. Don’t get me wrong — some design challenges are best solved with good old basic engineering principles: do Step A before attempting Step B. But many of the really cool gadgets that were once merely an idea, and are now an every day part of our lives, are precisely so because some engineer (or group of engineers) took an unconventional approach to figuring something out. Perhaps doing Step B before Step A is okay after all, or maybe jumping directly to Step C makes even more sense.
Along with helping meet design challenges, flexible thinking can have a dramatic effect on improving design processes. Electronic circuit simulation and analysis is a perfect example. SPICE was born in the 1970’s and is still the standard at many companies. Threaten to replace an engineer’s SPICE simulator, and all sorts of complaints pop-up. While SPICE is a great simulation tool, in the world of complex electronic systems – which more and more frequently drive larger non-electronic systems – it runs into frequent limitations. Get much outside the electronics world (translated: move into mechatronics), and SPICE comes up short. Fortunately, flexible thinking has met the challenge and produced a class of modeling languages and simulation tools (shameless plug for VHDL-AMS and SystemVision here) that propel design teams into full system modeling, simulation, and analysis.
So I need to remember my daughter’s most flexible thinker award when I start new projects – not only in how I view new projects, but also in the processes I use to approach them. I hope you’ll take the same challenge. Shelve the “business as usual” approach in favor of a new and fresh perspective in design solutions and processes. Who knows, maybe someday you’ll get your own “Flexible Thinker” award.