Clark Hochgraf

Clark Hochgraf Headshot

Clark Hochgraf is an Associate Professor in the College of Engineering Technology.  This month, he shares with us how he integrates art and design thinking to improve his students’ ability to think critically about their design in order to produce impactful, meaningful solutions for complex problems.  Read his answers to a few critical thinking questions here:

1. How Do You Teach Applied Critical Thinking?

I use art observation and design thinking to develop the critical thinking capability of engineers. Traditional engineering education develops strong analysis and synthesis skills. Art observation and design thinking complement this with a disciplined approach for information gathering, assumption testing, and reflective inquiry.

Art can be used to open our eyes to what is present in the world around us and to ask:

  • “Why did the artist make that choice?”
  • “What does it mean?”
  • “Why didn’t the artist make some other choice?”
  • “Why is this person doing what they are doing?”

Observing and discussing art is a wonderful way to start an inquiry conversation. In class, I’ll start by showing a piece, such as Caravaggio’s the calling of St. Matthew or Michele Del Campo’s scenes of street life, and ask students to open their eyes, to observe small clues and ask themselves:

  • “What is a small detail you see and what does it mean?”
  • “What clues do you have about how this person feels about the situation?”, or
  • “What is this person’s motivation or intent?”

I then remind students that everything in the painting is the intentional choice of the painter – it is there for a reason and has meaning. I will then ask the students to go out and observe the ordinary – e.g. a person drinking water from a fountain, opening a heavy door, or struggling with an overloaded backpack – and to do this with the mindset that everything has a meaning, that even the smallest detail can be a clue to understanding an individual’s needs, aspirations, or struggle. This warm-up activity starts the process of looking at a problem with new eyes and sets a framework of curiosity. Design thinking then provides a wide variety of methods that help engineers test their assumptions, recognize biases, and ask questions that help to define the right problem to solve.

2. Why Do You Think Applied Critical Thinking is Important in Your Domain?

Critical thinking is important in engineering for three reasons:

  • First, it is common for technological products to be designed that do not address the right problem because the underlying need has not been grasped. As a result, there is not a product/market fit and the product fails even though it is well engineered.
  • Second, too many solvable problems persist without being recognized as a problem. They remain unaddressed/investigated. As a result, we miss the opportunity to make people’s lives better.
  • Third, technology has long-term consequences and unforeseen impacts. A better painkiller can lead to an addiction crisis. A better insecticide can harm wildlife and contribute the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

By developing students’ critical thinking skills and creating opportunities for them to practice critical thinking while at RIT, they can be in a better position to consider the long-term impact of their design decisions. They can ask, “Why is this needed?” or “How might we accomplish this in another way that uses less energy, or has less potential risk?”

My goal is for graduates of RIT to be recognized as leaders in the conversation toward a deeper understanding of the context and culture of the users for whom they are designing. I would like RIT graduates to be known for asking the right “why” questions, then jumping in to solve the problem once it is defined.

3. Can You Share a Story Where Quality Applied Critical Thinking Was Key to Your Success?

Working in industry has provided many opportunities for critical thinking, usually under severe pressure. While I was working for a Fortune 10 company, a critical subsystem failed. The company was losing 15 million dollars an hour in profit while the production line was shut down. The design engineers had run out of ideas and I was pulled in as part of a Tiger team to fix the problem. We traced the issue to a component that was purchased from a new factory. The old factory had been demolished and there was no way to go back to the old component. We had to design a new solution that could be put into production in a matter of hours. Fortunately, we were able to channel the wisdom of legendary analog engineer Bob Pease: “When you see something funny, record the amount of funny.” A tiny clue in our measurements gave us an insight that led to a design solution in less than 24 hours. Ever since, I have been a huge advocate of observation and reflection as game-changers for engineers. Critical thinking was essential in both identifying the root cause and coming up with a solution that could be implemented in a constrained timeframe.

4. How Do You Use Critical Thinking in Other Areas of Your Life Outside of RIT?

I serve on the board of a non-profit organization. In that role, there are frequently challenging decisions to be made that affect the mission and financial position of the organization. Taking time to explore questions such as, “What happens if we don’t experience a best-case scenario?” has been beneficial in managing risks. A critical thinking mindset can help a diverse group, such as a board, evaluate the impact of their assumptions and be comfortable making decisions that will best serve the organization’s future needs.

5. Any Last Critical Thoughts?

More and more, I spend my time figuring out how to engage students’ natural motivation and inner curiosity. When students find their own inner motivation for learning – that is when the educational magic happens. A case in point is a second-year lab for which the rate of D and F grades or withdrawals was consistently high. A colleague and I set out to solve this by completely redesigning the course. We carefully crafted all new lab assignments, developed all new hardware, and completely changed the evaluation methods. The result was only a small improvement in D/W/F rates, so we revised the course a second time to address the perceived deficiencies.  Once again, we saw only a small improvement in D/W/F rates. It was not until we started to think critically that we found a solution. We talked with students and learned that we had not truly appreciated how important their motivation was to their success in the class. Based on these observations, we made just one small modification to the course: We added a motivational context (a robot) that the students loved. The result was a 78% reduction in the D/W/F rate consistent across multiple instructors and semesters. It was not until we took a step back, challenged our assumptions, and thought critically, that the desired outcome was achieved.