Engineering and Mindfulness

One might not think that Mechanical Engineering and yoga have anything to do with one another, but Beth Rieken would disagree. Rieken is both a Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate at Stanford University and a certified yoga instructor. Rieken visited the Mines campus on Jan. 29 to share her dissertation research which explores the relationship between mindfulness and engineering and the value of divergent thinking.

In EGGN 401 (Projects for People), Rieken guest lectured and defined mindfulness as “intentionally paying attention with openness and curiosity.” It allows for undivided attention on a particular task at a given moment. Mindfulness requires awareness of thoughts flowing through one’s brain with no judgement of these thoughts or emotions. There are many different ways to achieve mindfulness in daily life including yoga, mindfulness courses, diaphragmatic breathing, and meditation phone apps. After leading the class in a deep breathing mindfulness exercise, Rieken delved into why the concept of mindfulness should be incorporated into engineering design thinking.

The traditional engineering education focuses on gaining technical knowledge using a linear engineering problem solving method of making choices that converge to a singular answer. This style of convergent thinking helps students to break down complex problems and produces results for problems requiring quantifiable results. However, Rieken argues that convergent thinking should be balanced by divergent thinking. Divergent thinking occurs when an engineer is ideating solutions in a fashion that is quantity over quality. This balance between converging and diverging frames engineering design as a process that ebbs from convergent thinking during problem identification to divergent while ideas are generated and back to convergent thinking as the ideas are evaluated and the optimal solution is selected.

While this concept is not complex in theory, integrating divergent thinking can be challenging in the traditional setting of engineering education. Divergent thinking requires students to be comfortable with ambiguity and have the confidence to brainstorm many ideas in little time without judgement of those ideas. Rieken’s PhD research connected mindfulness and its ability to improve cognitive mechanisms such as the capacity of one’s working memory.

She later found that it helps to facilitate divergent thinking, which is important for overall innovation. While this connection of mindfulness and innovative thinking has been made, she does not suggest that teachers should feel the need to lead breathing exercises before every class. However, if the Mines faculty support the claim that engineers need to be more than just number crunchers they might consider better establishing a balance between divergent and convergent thinking in their courses.



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