Improv helps budding engineers to focus Monday, 15 January 2018

It’s not every day you find the words ‘engineering’ and ‘theatre improvisation’ in the same sentence, but one US professor is using the art form to help engineering students fine-tune their focus and turn obstacles into opportunities.

Professor Joseph Holtgreive is assistant dean and director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering in Illinois in the US, and teaches the very popular subject of Engineering Improv.

For more than 20 years, Holtgreive’s work has involved helping struggling engineering students “think and act productively when facing moments of intense uncertainty”. Following a presentation on improv at the uni, he hired an improv instructor to assist him to develop a curriculum.

Holtgreive says the basic rules of improv are “just say yes”, “start anywhere” and “embrace your mistakes” and these are also essential skills for creative problem-solving, design and innovation, which are central to engineering. He adds that all successful improvisation – and effective engineering – actually focuses on the needs of others.

Holtgreive tells his students to think of their attention like that of a torch, to create a beam of light and whatever is illuminated by it represents their awareness and intentions. The torch is an analogy he uses for helping engineering students realise they have the power to be consciously intentional and decide where to direct the light (their focus) rather than allowing distractions or self-judgement to get in the way.

While it sounds like mindfulness training, it’s more than that as engineering students act out improv in scenes with other students. Holtgreive says the art form isn’t about winging it, in fact it’s quite the opposite.

“It actually requires enormous structure, as participants commit to a character and to a common set of assumptions and boundaries before committing to each other as they enter a scene,” he says.

“Agreeing on the context of the scene allows the players the freedom to let the content emerge through connection.

“The same thing happens in engineering, but the context is the problem, the commitment is to the team and the process of user-centred problem-solving, and the content that’s allowed to emerge consists of the users’ underlying needs and interests -- which leads to a user-centred solution.”

Holtgreive says improv translates directly into a highly challenging curriculum such as engineering. As humans, it’s natural to have self-critical thoughts or doubts, but he says the students come to understand that those thoughts aren’t necessarily accurate and may not need to be resolved or pursued.

“That allows them to be pragmatic with their intentions as they choose how best to invest their energy through their attention,” Holtgreive says.