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Interdisciplinary Drexel Team Wins NSF Grant for Innovative Graduate Minor



August 13, 2019

An interdisciplinary team led by Chemistry Department Head Fraser Fleming, PhD, will use a $500K grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an innovative, interdisciplinary graduate minor. The project, “Creative Interdisciplinary Research in Graduate Education” (CIRGE), aims to develop a curriculum at Drexel University that will train graduate students of any major in applied creativity techniques, with the goal of enhancing both research topics and processes. Students will also work and solve problems in interdisciplinary teams, equipping them with collaborative skills that are essential in the workplace.

The dual focus of the minor — creativity and interdisciplinary research — was born out of observed gaps in graduate education.

“The core of graduate education should be to develop student’s creativity,” says Fleming. “However, no one in graduate education seems to discuss creativity, unless it’s the focus of their own research.”

Paul Gondek, PhD, visiting research professor of chemistry, adjunct teaching professor in the Lebow College of Business and a co-principal investigator on the grant, says, “Too often, students earn advanced degrees in one particular discipline and are surrounded by others in the same area. Later, when they finish their education and leave the academy, they must learn to work with others from an array of areas — people who don’t ‘speak their language.’ The learning curve for doing this is steep, painful, and for some, ultimately insurmountable.”

Fittingly, the grant’s investigative team includes researchers from diverse disciplines across the University. Along with Principal Investigator Fleming and Co-PI Gondek, the team includes Co-PIs Daniel King, PhD, associate professor of chemistry, Jen Katz-Buonincontro, PhD, associate professor and associate dean of research in the College of Education, and D.S. Nicholas, RA, AIA, NCARB, assistant professor and director of the MS in Design Research program in the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

Graduate students across the University will be eligible to add the minor to their degrees, choosing two electives from a menu of creativity and innovation-oriented courses. The curriculum will also include two required courses that have been developed specifically for the program.

The first, Creative Interdisciplinary Team Research: Principles and Practice, will provide fluency with the foundational processes that enhance creative practice and problem-solving skills in research work. Students will learn to identify and develop new, useful and high-quality ideas and products while working in mixed teams.

The second course, Enhancing the Creativity of a Research Project, will facilitate the development of students’ own research ideas. Students will learn proven creative practices to enhance their problem-solving abilities as they develop a project such as a thesis topic, grant proposal, or an original research proposal. Continuing to work in interdisciplinary teams, students will also have the opportunity to interact with a panel of creative academic researchers and a panel of innovators from industry, who will share the methods they use to creatively drive their work.

Existing courses such as Design Problem Solving; Innovation and Ideation; and Current Trends in Creativity and Innovation are ideal components of the minor to enhance the knowledge gained from these core courses.

As the research team develops this program over the next three years, the team will model the very interdisciplinary perspective espoused by the minor. Beyond his chemistry background, Fleming brings deep interests in creativity in science and in the interplay of science and religion. King, an expert in active-learning methods and hands-on classroom activities, will enhance the experiential nature of the minor.

Katz-Buonincontro specializes in the area of “creative mindsets” and how students can develop their own creativity. Nicholas has created interdisciplinary, immersive research courses focused on human-centered problem solving. Gondek brings not only training in social psychology and group or team process, but also experience with new product development and global interdisciplinary teamwork developed over a 35-year business career.

While all bring an interest in creativity, innovation and teamwork to the work of this grant, they also believe that, as they have learned to work well together, so too can the students.