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A Creative Approach to Teaching Creativity, Interdisciplinary Teamwork for Graduate Students

Fraser Fleming, PhD, head of the chemistry department in the College of Arts and Sciences, teaching the course.

August 10, 2018

This piece is part of the new DrexelNow series showcasing "A Day in the Class" for some of Drexel University's most interesting and impactful courses.

The course technically carries the “CHEM T580” title, but chemistry isn’t even referenced until halfway through today’s lecture.

This course is taught by a chemistry professor. It’s hosted in a room with a poster featuring the chemical compound for caffeine on the wall behind the coffee machine. But there’s more discussion of Michael Jordan’s practice habits and having “a-ha” moments in the shower than there is about chemistry.

That’s because this course is titled “Creative Interdisciplinary Team Research: Principles and Practice,” and aimed at providing graduate students from all across the University with the opportunity to learn how to develop new, useful and high-quality ideas while also working within interdisciplinary teams. Maybe “AS-I T480” — the Arts & Sciences Interdisciplinary Study title the course also carries — is a bit more accurate.

Fraser Fleming, PhD, head of the chemistry department in the College of Arts and Sciences, teaching the course.“We started the class because we realized that, actually, the core of graduate education is developing people's creativity,” said Fraser Fleming, PhD, head of the chemistry department in the College of Arts and Sciences. “But in graduate education, I've never heard of anybody talking about creativity directly unless it’s part of their research.”

Fleming started the class alongside social psychologist Paul Gondek, PhD, an adjunct teaching professor in both the College of Arts and Sciences and the LeBow College of Business — a partnership itself connected to the classes’ additional aim of giving graduate students exposure to working in interdisciplinary teams.

“Exposure to people who think differently, from other disciplines, will help them when they leave because it's likely that when they finish their degrees and go off to whatever is next, they’re going to find themselves on a team with people that don't share the same education they have,” Gondek said.

The structure of the class promotes both creativity and teamwork. Today, the class is reviewing chapters from “Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity” by Keith Sawyer alongside Fleming’s prepared lecture. He presents the quote, “Creativity is seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought,” once said by Hungarian physiologist Albert Szent-Györgyi, though it is regularly misattributed to Albert Einstein.

“I find this very helpful as a working definition, and I’m going to suggest that you keep this as well because it’s very accessible, it’s catchy and it’s easy to understand,” Fleming said.

He then prompts the class to relay one creative technique that they will each implement in their life from here on out. Answers range from thinking of the future and asking questions to keeping a writing instrument in the bathroom to capture those shower ideas. Concurrently, a sign-up sheet is being passed around for students to claim a forthcoming day where they will lecture for half of the class — these presentation opportunities all building up to mid-term and final team presentations worth a combined 40 percent of their final grade.

Gondek and Fleming agreed that a rubric- and peer evaluation-driven approach to the class was needed.

“Having a course on creativity and then asking that people would take a standardized exam doesn't seem like it really fits with what we try to accomplish,” Fleming said.

This fall, Gondek and Fleming plan to launch a graduate minor in creative interdisciplinary research in the College of Arts and Sciences for which this course will be a requirement. They will also introduce a second course called “Enhancing the Creativity of a Major Research Idea.” The professors also plan to submit a proposal to the Innovations in Graduate Education Program at the National Science Foundation in order to gain funding to track the influence of the courses. His continued work on the proposal also earned Gondek the title of visiting research professor in the chemistry department, even though he hasn’t studied chemistry since his own undergraduate days.

Though they don’t yet have the metrics to prove it, Gondek and Fleming believe this graduate minor will help set these Drexel students apart from their peers when it comes to their future job search.

“Imagine that you turn up at an employer and you say, ‘Hire me as a chemist or a biomedical engineer, and what differentiates me from everybody else is that I have a graduate minor in creative interdisciplinary team research, and so I think that I bring to the table something that makes me more creative and I’ve experienced what makes teams work well,’” Fleming said. “And boy, you know, Paul and I teach the course so we’re believers already, but, you know, if I could do it again, heck, I'd take that graduate minor because it sets you apart from everybody else.”

Current students believe in this future benefit. John-Paul Marrazzo, a first-year graduate student studying organic chemistry, said he plans to pursue the new minor in belief that it is a great opportunity to become more diverse in his academic pursuits. The skills he has learned in the current class have also already been beneficial to his research.

“I’m not just getting perspective on creativity, but I’m getting perspective on life,” Marrazzo said of the course.

His in-class teammate Marie Mastrobattista, a second-year graduate student pursuing a dual degree in both interior architecture and design research, said she’s sure the techniques she’s learning in the class will be applicable to future classes and her future career. She added that, although she’s by no means a “science person” herself, she’s enjoyed learning how her science-focused classmates will apply these concepts to their field, which is much different from her own.

“I think that’s really important as a grad student because we get so funneled into our area of study,” she said of the interdisciplinary nature of the class. “So it’s definitely been interesting at a base level to meet people outside of my area of study and get to know people with different interests and disciplines.”

Fleming said that his hope for all students who come into contact with this suite of classes is that they help shape their approach to problem-solving, especially in research.

“I hope eventually this is going to also change the way that they look at the rest of their graduate experience,” he said.