Faculty cultivate creativity at NSF-funded academy

July 13, 2021

Faculty participate in a creativity activity.

Heather Hunt, center, participates with other faculty in an activity at the Creativity Academy.

Engineers have always needed foundational know-how to solve problems facing society. But in today’s world of unprecedented challenges, they also need the imagination required to think up never-before-seen solutions. That’s where creativity comes into play.

Enter Heather Hunt, an associate professor in Biomedical, Biological and Chemical Engineering. Along with Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emerita Suzanne Burgoyne from Mizzou’s theatre department, Hunt has led back-to-back summer academies aimed to equip engineering colleagues with tools they need to implement creativity in the classroom.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Creativity Academy is an intensive month-long program. Five BBCE faculty members participated in June, and five others took part in the program last summer. Through group discussions and activities, the professors learned practical, evidence-based creativity lessons they can incorporate in undergraduate engineering courses to better prepare students for the real world.

“Creativity is the foundation of innovation, and innovation is what our workforce needs. It’s what companies need,” Hunt said. “We’re deliberately doing this throughout our entire curriculum to get students ready for what employers expect.”

And that preparation extends beyond today’s expectations.

“As faculty, we prepare our students for known problems but we don’t know the sustainability, health, and social challenges facing societies 10 or 20 years from now that our students will face,” said Assistant Professor Damon Hall, who participated in the academy. “We can only teach so far out into the future. Creative skills help fill the gaps between knowns and unknowns for solving tomorrow’s problems.”

Personal problem solving

It’s not a stretch to imagine how creativity impacts engineering. Engineers designed and built the Eiffel Tower. They brought us vehicles and transportation systems. They developed our smart phones and continue to imagine new ways artificial intelligence can improve our lives.

But somewhere along the way, engineering came to be known as a rigid, linear process. Here’s a problem: use “X” and “Y” to solve it.

For Assistant Professor Ilker Ozden, the academy showed him the need to provide students more opportunities to come up with their own solutions.

“A lot of times, they get information and formulas, but they don’t experience open-ended problems or have a chance to show their creativity,” he said. “Questions in engineering require methods and well-described procedures, and we still need that. But students also need to use their own initiative and personality in problem solving.”

Charles Darr, an assistant teaching professor and director of undergraduate studies for the bioengineering degree programs, agreed. While he’s always recognized engineering as a creative field, he realized students aren’t always making that connection. And it will be imperative for them to do so in their careers.

“While our students learn mostly rote answers to well-developed questions, the types of problems engineers face in the real world are far more complex and require creative thinking skills and an innovative mindset that we don’t really teach them,” Darr said. “It will be an important and unique development experience for our engineering students that will help them find jobs and be well-prepared for real-world problem-solving once they get there.”

‘Creativity important in any field’

BBCE faculty began working with Burgoyne over five years ago to incorporate evidence-based, theatre-inspired techniques into the bioengineering senior design course.

Burgoyne has taught creativity to both theatre majors and students in disciplines outside the Arts. While the language may vary, the principles are the same.

“Creativity is important in any field, and you can be creative in any field. And in some fields, you want to be more creative,” Burgoyne said, pointing to future engineers. “We need them to be up to speed and to help solve new problems coming down the pike. It’s really crucial for them to learn how to be creative.”

Burgoyne worked with Hunt and a former BBCE faculty member to incorporate creativity into the bioengineering senior capstone course. At first, students could elect to participate. However, after seeing the benefits and data, the department approved fully embedding the content for all students, Hunt said.

Two years ago, she led efforts to expand the concept, receiving a grant from NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) program. The idea was to incorporate creative practices throughout the curriculum and start earlier in the student’s educational experience.

“We were seeing that it was too late by the senior capstone point of a student’s career,” Hunt said. “By the time they got to us, the educational system hadn’t given them a chance to practice being creative.”

The five BBCE faculty who took the Creativity Academy last year began incorporating techniques into more courses last fall, and the new cohort will begin implementing creative activities into additional classes this coming year.

“Those faculty teach enough courses that students will start getting introduced to these types of concepts at the sophomore level, so by the time they get to capstone it won’t be such a foreign concept,” Hunt said.

Eager to get started

This year’s Creativity Academy participants say they’re excited to get started.

“In BBCE, we are following the peer-reviewed research that creativity can be trained,” Hall said. “From the Creativity Academy, we know learning it can be fun. And we are changing how we think about our curriculum to ensure we recognize creativity as a fundamental engineering proficiency.”

Assistant Teaching Professor Scott Christensen plans to incorporate the concepts he learned into his chemical engineering design class. In the past, he said he’s tried to get students to come up with innovative solutions, but now he has specific techniques and exercises he can use to develop student creativity.

“One of the projects of the Creativity Academy was to develop a map and a schedule of when and how to incorporate creativity exercises into our classes,” he said. “Doing this project has helped me generate a plan to add creative exercises in three places in my senior design class schedule. I am excited to try these exercises in my class and to see the effects on students.”

Associate Professor Bret Ulery expects the focus on creativity to remind students why they wanted to become engineers in the first place.

“Students are excited to apply what they learn in class to problems they really care about, and this is a way to tap into things students see every day,” he said. “Increasing creativity not just in a course but throughout the curriculum will keep students engaged and passionate.”