Make it Creative: Blending Business with Art in Science Classes

By Derrick E. Rancourt, professor from the Cumming School of Medicine and University of Calgary Teaching Scholar

Recently I have been experimenting with introducing more creative components into the science classes that I teach, to help students with experientially learning creativity.

Creativity is defined as the ability to transcend traditional concepts, rules, designs, interactions, etc. to generate meaningful new ideas, forms, processes, interpretations, etc. Sarnoff Mednick explains creativity as the generation of associative elements into new combinations, which either meet specific requirements or are useful in some way; the more disparate the components of the new combination, the more creative the process.

The biomedical engineering program that I teach in is a strong candidate for creativity; the area between disciplines is often underdeveloped, and can be a good place to generate the new ideas necessary for creating new knowledge. In his book Social Origins of Good Ideas, Ronald Burt likens creativity to an import-export business. A simple idea in one discipline can be transformative in another. This is because the value of the idea is determined by the recipient, not the creator. Burt argues that the path to being creative involves convincing stakeholders that the idea or approach has the potential to be transformative.

In my undergraduate teaching, I introduce students to business principles using the biotechnology industry as the backdrop. One of the learning approaches that I use is called case studies. While there are several different approaches to tackling case studies, my favorite is to divide the class into teams of four or five, making each team responsible for teaching a case. Teams are advised to make their presentations creative and to avoid using the conventional, (i.e. didactic) approach. What come from these constraints are artistic presentations, ones that involve plays or videos, where characters within the individual case studies come alive. Commonly, Freytag’s five elements come forward in these dramas: 1) narrative to introduce the scenario, 2) build-up through character interaction, 3) climax where conflict is commonly experienced, 4) resolution where case decisions are made, and finally 5) revelation where lessons learned from the case are presented and discussed.

Patricia Stokes argues that the creative path is filled with constraints: “An individual can be creative using paired constraints; implying that in defining constraints, every constraint will preclude one thing and promote another.” In the case of my assignment, I asked teams to present the case study without using PowerPoint. This forced them to think of alternative approaches to getting their points across. Other constraints that evoke creativity can be space, time, resources, conventions.

There is a place for creativity in reflective learning. This year I plan to explore creativity in my professional development course. Currently, there is a dearth of full-time employment opportunities for graduates, despite there being an abundance of short-term gigs. As part of a section on entrepreneurship, I am challenging students to consider the idea of becoming independent consultants. While reflecting about their skills, interests, and values, students will create, and share a business logo that represents their unique value proposition.

Although creativity is often automatically connected to artists, it is also an important skill for scientists, engineers, and other professions. Creativity is needed in problem-solving, and it can also be useful in interpreting data that might seem disparate at first. Creativity is a skill that is coveted by employers because a company’s success is often determined by the quality of its new ideas. Said another way, creativity can give an individual or an organization an important competitive edge.

References

Mednick, S. (1969) The Associative Basis of the Creative process. Psychology Review 69: 220-232.

Burt RS (2002) The Social Origins of Good Ideas. http://www.analytictech.com/mb709/readings/burt_SOGI.pdf

Stokes, P.D. (2001) Variability, Constraints, and Creativity: Shedding Light on Claude Monet. American Psychologist 56: 355-359.

Freytag, G. (1863) Die Technik des Dramas. German translation by Elias J. MacEwan (1894).

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