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Bioengineering capstone course courts creativity

A group of students sit on stone steps and have a lively discussion.

In the course of working on their capstone projects, bioengineering seniors are incorporating different activities one might find in a theater classroom. Photo by Ryan Owens.

Engineers are well-renowned for their analytical and problem-solving skills. However, the MU Bioengineering department wants its graduates to be known for their innovation and creativity, too.

Over the past three years, Assistant Professor Ferris Pfeiffer has worked with Prof. Suzanne Burgoyne in MU’s Theater Department to pilot a program that incorporated traditional theater techniques into a section of the department’s capstone class for seniors. The data gathered from the pilot showed fascinating results, and now, the techniques are a required part of the curriculum in each edition of the capstone class.

“Every single student in the class does this,” Associate Professor Heather Hunt, who is co-teaching the course with Pfeiffer, said. “We have two years of data that show every single student who actually participated in this had a better experience overall and had their specific quantitative measures improve. They showed higher engineering design self-efficacy and more confidence in their design abilities.

“It all very much dovetails with how we teach design.”

Students entering the class aren’t sure what to make of it at first. This year’s class entered to work on a variety of projects — including watershed management for the City of Columbia, production improvements for Dogmaster Distillery, improved detection of tumor cells, and improved methods of mixing elements in blood culture bottles.

In the course of working on those, however, they’re incorporating different activities one might find in a theater classroom, such as thinking of 20 different ways to cross a room.

“I thought it was kind of crazy at first,” senior Austin Coan said. “I didn’t think we needed to do anything related to theater. As we take it now, I see the point of it.”

And that’s the key, Hunt said — making the connection between the project and the creative process.

“When they find that link and understand why they’re doing this, they really do buy in,” she explained.

In the end, students leave with a new mindset, enabling them to look at problems in a different way from their engineering peers. In terms of educating future generations of engineering leaders, it’s another example of how Mizzou Bioengineering is giving its students a leg up when they enter the workforce.

“I think it’ll be really helpful, especially if I do something with developing something completely new or modifying something that’s already developed,” senior Sara Youngblood said. “I’ll have to think back to this class and ways we thought of different ideas and be creative with it, where if I didn’t have it, I think I’d be stuck.”