13 Ways of Looking at Creativity

Photo by Jeff Fitlow

What do a giraffe feeder, an IV drip and a robotic arm have in common? They’re all recent Rice engineering design projects that were tested and refined using a process of rapid or low-fidelity prototyping.

 In Rice’s bustling 20,000-square-foot Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen (OEDK), students work in teams to find solutions to a wide range of client-sponsored engineering challenges.

“The definition of prototyping is solving problems by creating physical or digital artifacts,” said Matthew Wettergreen ’08, who teaches ENGI 120: Introduction to Engineering Design. Last year more than 140 teams and clubs used the OEDK’s resources. “Rapid or low-fidelity prototyping is the best place to start when you have a physical idea you need to realize, because it’s low cost, the materials are readily available and it simulates the conditions that exist in places outside the U.S. where resources may not be as abundant.”

Wettergreen sees the seeds of innovation in materials commonly found in a kindergarten classroom — cardboard, tape, scissors and Play-Doh. “You can combine them in fascinating ways to represent objects, tell stories or even achieve function,” Wettergreen said. For the new engineering student who may not be proficient with a lathe or laser cutter, such materials present a low barrier for design. 

“One of the things you need to bring to prototyping is that there are no wrong answers,” Wettergreen said. “Everything you build is a stepping stone to the next idea. Discarded solutions help you to arrive at the selected solution.” 

This year, for example, a freshman team was working on a way to identify when hearing protection is recommended around the OEDK machines. They developed a series of prototypes that would alert users with colors and lights when a machine was too loud. They went through four or five different versions of these prototypes before settling on a simple geometric design for the case and a series of flashing lights to alert the user to use ear protection.  

“The reason that prototyping is an effective strategy to solve problems in a team is that it brings the ideas that people have in their heads into a physical space, allowing them to be discussed, compared and explored,” Wettergreen said. In team projects, getting on the same page is crucial to success. The proof is in the prototype.