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Partnership with theater department cues creativity in engineering students

A trio of student share ideas while seated in a circle of desks.

Sami Assi, Alexa Janus and Courtney Norgren were part of the second edition of an engineering capstone course designed to use similar activities to those used in introductory theater courses to loosen students up and encourage them to think less linearly and more creatively. Photos by Jennifer Hollis.

The play was the thing that sparked the big idea. In this case, it was a performance by local kids put on by the Missoula Children’s Theater.

Ferris Pfeiffer, an assistant professor of bioengineering in the University of Missouri College of Engineering, was in the crowd watching his two kids perform during the dress rehearsal. While waiting for some of the other kids to get ready to perform, the kids in the audience began to get restless. So the members of the Missoula Children’s Theater put on an impromptu talent show.

“Every single hand went up immediately. They all wanted to do it; none of them were afraid of doing something silly or goofy,” Pfeiffer said. “A light bulb went off and I thought, ‘Man, I wish my engineers could do that.’”

From there, Pfeiffer sought out help from MU’s Department of Theater to make his idea a reality, and he found a willing partner in Curators’ Teaching Professor Suzanne Burgoyne. Burgoyne, a highly-regarded educator and scholar, had been seeking new ways to apply theater education — particularly the creative aspects — to aid the progress of those in technical and hard science majors. Pfeiffer’s idea was right up her alley.

Ferris Pfeiffer laughs while talking to a student.

Ferris Pfeiffer, an MU assistant professor of bioengineering, was intrigued by the idea of using theater techniques to spark creativity in his students after watching his children participate in a traveling theater production.

“I realized that when I’m teaching acting, directing or any theater course, really, I’m teaching creativity,” Burgoyne, who teaches another course on creativity for the Honors College, said. “I thought theater techniques could help people learn to be creative in other fields, too.

The duo created a pilot course and tried it out on a group of engineering seniors in the Fall 2015 semester before making a few tweaks and bringing it back for the Fall 2016 semester. The goal was to use similar activities to those used in introductory theater courses to loosen students up and encourage them to think less linearly and more creatively. An added benefit came in the form of lowering inhibitions and building a comfort level in terms of communicating, a handy tool for the presentations and pitches often required of professional engineers.

“Us being all engineers, sometimes you think you’ll have that big idea come to you,” Sami Assi, a student currently taking the course, said. “But it really hammered in that it’s not going to be some sort of sudden epiphany or master idea. It’s incremental steps and reiterations and testing the concepts that gets you going to different places.”

One of the more memorable activities came early on in the semester, when students learned the difference between convergent and divergent thinking. An example tasked them with explaining ways to get toothpaste out of the tube. The default answer (convergent thinking) was to squeeze the tube with one’s hand, but the activity was designed to open up a wealth of possibilities (divergent thinking), with no suggestion too absurd — jumping on it, throwing dynamite at it and more.

“I feel that this reinforced that, every other course we’ve had there’s always one solution to an exam question — this is more open ended,” student Alexa Janus said.

Another exercise included students having to come up with 40 different ways to get across the room, which eventually led to a student hopping on Pfeiffer’s back in an attempt to provide a new perspective. All of these activities encourage outside-the-box thinking and encourage students to relax, helpful attributes for students in disciplines that often are very detail and process oriented. Eventually, they create elevator pitches for proposed medical devices to present at a poster session on campus.

“If you want to be creative, sometimes you learn the most from your failures rather than your successes,” Burgoyne said of the risk-taking mindset the course hopes to instill.

Pfeiffer provided a demonstration of how the course works by offering a workshop for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Annual Meeting in June, which received rave reviews. The eventual goal, he said, was to collect enough data through these courses to quantify outcomes and to grow the idea, potentially seeking funding and resources to educate more faculty members both at MU and at other institutions to implement similar courses.

“We’re going to attempt to quantify their outcomes,” he said. “We’re going to get some experts in the field and have them evaluate this poster, this poster, this poster without knowing who did which and learn if the students did better because of this. We know we can get them feeling better about their abilities, but we don’t know if this improves performance. … The students loved it.”