Art for Engineers: Encouraging More Whole-Brain Thinking

Post contributed by Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.


The human brain’s left and right hemispheres have markedly different capabilities. The left hemisphere exhibits valuable verbal, analytic, logical, and linear characteristics while the right hemisphere offers equally powerful nonverbal, emotional, intuitive, spatial, and holistic features.

Betty Edwards, in her 1999 book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, says this about the U.S. K-12 and beyond educational system: “Most of our educational system has been designed to cultivate the verbal, rational, on-time left hemisphere, while half of the brain of every student is virtually neglected.” Might the preceding also generally characterize engineering education? I think so.

Need for a Whole-Brain Approach

I believe that achieving professional success and significance in an increasingly globalized business/professional situation and in a world with growing socio-economic-environmental challenges will require enhanced, non-technical personal and group qualities. Some examples are adaptability, collaboration, creativity, empathy, entrepreneurship, innovation, synthesis, and visualization. These capabilities require the whole brain. If engineers are to be effective players on the world stage, they must complement their traditional left-brain orientation with right-brain characteristics; they must take a whole-brain approach.

Noting the growing importance of right-brain capabilities, Edwards offers a partial solution and it is applicable to engineering education. She suggests including freehand drawing in formal education and training because it is “an efficient, effective way to teach thinking strategies suited to the right brain.”

My experiences over recent years lend credence to Edward’s proposal. In 2008, after an almost six decade lapse that began after the third grade, I returned, on a whim, to art by taking a pencil drawing class, loving it, and doing a variety of drawings. This was initially simply a pleasant diversion – no intended connection to my work. 

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However, I gradually began to see possible connections between visual arts and improving engineering education and, ultimately, practice. That led to more research, interacting with academic and practitioner colleagues, presenting and publishing papers, conducting workshops, and publishing the book Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers (http://www.helpingyouengineeryourfuture.com/managing-leading-books.htm)

A Benefit of Freehand Drawing

Consider one way in which engineers, first as students and later as practitioners, might benefit as a result of learning pencil drawing or, more broadly, participating in visual arts. A principle guiding freehand drawing is to draw which we see contrasted with drawing something the way we think it should look. I draw what I see, that is, composition, shapes, and values. In my view, enhanced observation, that is, more seeing and, relatively speaking, less looking, is an inevitable by-product of practicing the visual arts.

So, what has this got to do with engineering? Improved seeing, whether literally as described here or possibly, by extension, figuratively, further enables an engineering student or practitioner. To paraphrase and expand the common expression “a problem well defined is half solved,” an issue, problem, or opportunity more completely and accurately seen is half resolved, solved, or pursued.

Conclusion

U.S. engineering colleges draw a disproportionate share of the brightest students on campuses. We and they should work to be even better stewards of this intellectual resource. One way to do so is to experiment with instruction in visual arts to see if the experience supplements already powerful left-mode thinking with more complementary right-mode thinking. This whole-brain approach may enable aspiring engineers to be more creative and innovative during their formal studies and later in professional practice, to their, their employer’s, and society’s benefit. My hope is that this blog might stimulate more discussion of the possible role of visual arts in engineering education, lead to collaboration and possibly conferences or conference sessions, and stimulate some faculty and/or practitioners to conduct pilot courses or workshops.


Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E. is an independent consultant, teacher, and writer. Prior to starting his business 15 years ago, he worked in government, business, and academia. A much more detailed presentation of “Art for Engineers” is available here: http://www.helpingyouengineeryourfuture.com/art-engineers.htm