My dissertation, completed in the Designing Education Lab, is titled Mindfulness & Engineering: a pathway to divergent thinking and innovation. This work spans the intersection of engineering design, education, and psychology and represents pioneering work to understand the benefits of mindfulness to engineering design:
Through this work I gained skills in statistics, R, survey design, qualitative research, and human subjects research.
Prior to my work in the DEL, I spent the first three years of my PhD candidacy in the Hanson High Temperature Gasdynamics Laboratory. I worked on the photophysics characterization of tracer molecules for use in quantitative Planar Laser Induced Fluorescence (PLIF) imaging and the optical properties of soot (black carbon) in the atmosphere:
Through this work I gained skills in pulsed laser operation, optics, labVIEW, photophysics, spectroscopy, hardware integration and communication, image processing, computer programming, particle diagnostics and soot chemistry.
Mindfulness & Engineering
The current paradigm in engineering education promotes linear, convergent thinking focused on gaining technical knowledge. Although convergent thinking is important in engineering, divergent thinking is critical to considering the context in which engineering design problems are situated and to generating innovative ideas to address those problems. This is especially true in today’s professional engineering workplace where, more and more often, we are tackling engineering problems from a broader perspective in larger, more interdisciplinary teams. Engineering work requires divergent thinking skills that are not emphasized in most engineering programs.
There is a growing body of research showing that a fundamental human capacity, mindfulness, fosters divergent thinking, and that mindfulness can be cultivated through practice. Mindfulness is defined as intentionally paying attention with openness, curiosity and discernment (Shapiro & Carlson 2017). Although psychologists continue to explore the exact mechanisms by which mindfulness facilitates divergent thinking, there is convincing evidence that there is a causal link between a mindfulness and divergent thinking ability.
In my dissertation, I developed a conceptual framework based on peer-reviewed literature connecting mindfulness, divergent thinking, and innovation in engineering.
This framework formed the basis for two studies exploring mindfulness and engineering. The first study was a laboratory-based meditation intervention study of Stanford engineering undergraduate students. Students were randomly assigned to a control or meditation condition and asked to complete two divergent thinking tasks relevant to engineering design. Published results of this study are forthcoming.
The second study was a survey-based study exploring the relationship between trait mindfulness and one’s confidence in his/her ability to be innovative. This work was done as part of a larger, longitudinal study called the Engineering Majors Survey looking at innovation and entrepreneurship in a national sample of engineering students and recent graduates. Results from this study can be found in the following two conference publications:
FiE Trait Mindfulness in an Engineering Classroom
ASEE Mindfulness & Innovation in Engineering Students
The intersection of mindfulness and engineering is still largely uncharted in academic research. My dissertation work has important implications for engineering education. Specifically, it provides initial evidence that mindfulness, as a dispositional trait, is correlated with divergent thinking ability and innovation self-efficacy in engineering students. It also provides initial evidence that a mindfulness intervention can improve divergent thinking in idea generation. If we want to educate innovative engineers, we need to rethink the tools we are using in our engineering classrooms.
Planar Laser Induced Fluorescence (PLIF)
For the first three years of my PhD work, I was a member of the Hanson Group where I worked on Planar Laser Induced Fluorescence research. PLIF is a technique used to image gases or fluids for experimental research on phenomena such as combustion or turbulence. Tracers are added to a fluid or gas flow and excited using a high-powered laser formed into a laser sheet. The fluorescence emission of the tracer molecules are collected using a CCD (charge-coupled device) camera to provide information about the flow properties.
Tracers change their emission properties depending on the wavelength of the excitation light and the temperature and pressure of the local environment. In order to be able to quantify the temperature and pressure of a fluid or gas flow using the collected CCD image, we need to know the fluorescence characteristics of various tracers in various conditions.
I worked on an experimental set-up to test the absorption cross section and fluorescence spectrum of tracer molecules. I presented my preliminary data on anisole, a potential candidate for use as a fluorescent tracer, at the Gordon Research Conference on Laser Diagnostics for Combustion Applications. Anisole research was pioneered at the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany.
Optical Properties of Soot
I spent a year of my time with the Hanson Group working with Dr. Hope Michelsen at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California to investigate soot particles. Soot (black carbon) aerosols are estimated to be the second most important climate-warming agent. Unlike many aerosols that primarily scatter radiation, soot is a strong absorber of solar radiation, contributing a large positive component to the radiative forcing on the atmosphere. There are large uncertainties in the optical properties of soot due to its complex, maturity-dependent morphology. Accurate soot optical properties are important in climate models to determine radiative transfer in the atmosphere.
During my time at Sandia, I used techniques such as laser induced incandescence (LII), extinction, and elastic laser scattering to glean information about the absorption and scattering cross-sections of atmospheric soot.