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AFRL personnel connect with creative thinking processes to enhance problem solving

  • Published
  • By Donna Lindner
  • Air Force Research Laboratory

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – To help overcome road blocks in thinking processes and spark imaginative solutions, personnel at the Air Force Research Laboratory are exploring new methods of problem solving.

A select group of researchers recently participated in a course on design innovation to learn and practice creativity techniques for enhanced problem solving. 

The design innovation course was taught by Dr. Dan Jensen, retired Air Force Academy Professor. He began the course by stating that IQ is typically an inherited trait. According to Jensen, intelligent parents generally equates to smart children.

“Creativity is learned,” said Jensen. “Similar to practicing the piano, there are methods to learn to be creative. Practicing those techniques enhances creativity and thinking outside the box.”

Jensen shared research findings that state by increasing the quantity of ideas, the quality and novelty of ideas naturally increase. Innovation is enhanced by using techniques to increase the number of generated solutions.

The class consisted of 30 individuals divided into teams that chose an actual problem facing the Air Force to solve during the workshop.

One team chose re-arming an airplane mid-air; a concept similar to the method used to refuel an aircraft while flying. Brainstorming on how to safely move an aircraft on an icy tarmac, rescuing ejected pilots in the water, and creating a runway in a contested environment were other topics of discussion.

Jensen taught the groups to use a variety of techniques to solve the problems. One method involves looking at nature for inspiration for a solution. Prototypes of team projects were constructed with clay, balloons, pipe cleaners and various craft materials. Teams were judged on creativity, solutions, and answers to questions for each task.

“Whatever assists in increasing our creativity and loosens the restraints we put on ourselves is a plus,” said Dr. Larry Brott, Assistant Chief Engineer, Materials and Manufacturing Directorate.

AFRL further directs creative thinking through a facilitator group called IDEATE. Dr. Greg Reich, principal engineer of the Aerospace Systems Directorate, has formed the group with facilitators from across AFRL. Their purpose is to teach and assist personnel in using these innovation techniques.

The IDEATE facilitators instruct students on how to apply innovation to drive creative problem solutions. Jensen likens applying innovation techniques to riding a bicycle. The first few times one tries to ride a bike, they will probably skin a knee.

“AFRL is already very innovative and accomplishes a lot of amazing feats,” said Dr. Mark Fernelius, Aerospace Systems Directorate. “The design innovation techniques are not meant to replace, but to enhance our creativity. They aid us in becoming more intentional about our innovation.”

The IDEATE group intends to experiment with techniques developed at the workshop in their future meetings and spread the word on creative thinking.

By using more innovative techniques, members of AFRL will use these design tools for strategic impact and organizational transformation by focusing on what the users and organizations really need and want. By balancing the desirability of the solution, as defined by the user, with the technology feasibility and business viability, high quality solutions can quickly be created to solve critical Air Force problems.

Plans for future workshops include involving AFRL in its entirety and possibly the entire Wright-Patterson Air Force Base populous.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: