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Creative Campus Culture Inspires Students to Look at Things Differently

Friday, June 07, 2013
Two males looks at piece of art on a clipboard
Renaissance Learning Environment: Steve Letsinger, coordinator of arts programs and arts curator, helps a student visualize an artistic concept during a drawing class. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

It's impossible to describe Leonardo da Vinci in just a word or two. He was an engineer and a painter, both a sculptor and a scientist, along with being a mathematician and musician. He was the quintessential Renaissance man, as well-rounded as one could possibly be. And, it could be argued that his artistic and creative abilities made his scientific skills that much stronger.

These days, a lot of people think of scientific, engineering, and mathematical skills as being divorced from creative talents-segregated into different sides of the brain. Rose-Hulman, on the other hand, draws inspiration from such visionaries as da Vinci and Michelangelo, with the hope of graduating modern-day Renaissance scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

It's a noble mission. "Creativity and innovation are things that drive the American business economy as well as the engineering economy," observes Kay C Dee, PhD, associate dean of learning and technology. "A computer can be an engineer, but you need a human being to find a way around something that is blocking your path. Creativity and innovation make you an engineer, not just a calculator."

Bill Kline, PhD, dean of innovation, agrees, adding, "Creativity is that key first step in recognizing a problem and coming up with something new and different." It's important to realize, however, that creativity doesn't just happen. "What we are trying to do at Rose-Hulman is teach creativity and how to be creative," Kline says. "We try to provide experiences that encourage creativity."

That commitment begins in the curriculum. "One of the aspects of creativity is being able to take information from a variety of different sources and apply it to the problem at hand," Kline points out. For that to happen, students need to be exposed to information from diverse sources.

Man sits at a desk with computer open at the end of a row of books in the library
Campus Canvas: Academics and art are showcased as a student finds a quiet spot in the John A. Logan Library to study among the Kappa Kappa Kappa philanthropic sorority's collection of paintings by Indiana artists. (Photo by Chris Minnick)

Rose-Hulman requires students to take courses in humanities and social sciences. Steve Letsinger, MFA, coordinator of arts programs and arts curator, teaches classes in drawing, photography, design and color, art appreciation, and art history.

The drawing course has a direct occupational application for a lot of students, especially those that will become civil and mechanical engineers. One student came to Letsinger's drawing class devoid of self-confidence, and finished the quarter knowing the basics. During a job interview, the student was handed a blank piece of paper and asked to draw what was on the desk in front of him. The interviewer explained that "we don't hire engineers unless they can draw."

Learning the basics helped that student land a job, but Letsinger says the drawing class has a much broader goal-teaching students to observe and notice details in the world around them. "I teach them to think differently about things. Don't just notice that there's a dog, a man, and a hat. Notice how they're arranged," he says. Also, students must pay attention to the space between the objects.

The infusion of creativity can also be found in science, engineering, and math classes. "Every time I ask students to solve a problem, I'm looking for creative approaches," says Dee, who is also professor of applied biology and biomedical engineering. "Sometimes I ask them to come up with the craziest idea they can, and we'll look for the nugget of greatness in that craziness. Asking for variety is an easy way to encourage creativity."

Creative problem-solving was at the heart of a creative design course taught this winter by Patsy Brackin, PhD, professor of mechanical engineering. One on-the-spot design challenge had groups figuring out how to build a span across eight inches using six index cards and a pair of paper clips. One group's concept supported up to 159 pennies.

"Students like to compete and push themselves. We talk about how we want to be more creative, but it's hard to practice being creative," explains Brackin. "It is human nature that we think of an idea and think it's great. Typically, the best idea isn't the first one that we have, so we hope they're getting in the habit of generating multiple ideas."

Female student stand at the front of class holding up a small creation
Creative Designs: Students came up with a variety of ideas during on-the-spot design challenges this past winter. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

Rose-Hulman also fosters creativity through a broad range of out-of-class experiences, Kline adds. Various competitions encourage cooperative problem-solving and creativity. Rose-Hulman Ventures gives student interns real-world creative problems to solve. The Matt Branam Innovation Center provides space for project teams to meet, hash out and test ideas, build prototypes, and explore solutions to challenges from robotics, to sustainability, to motorsports. "You can do so much in the classroom, but a lot is learned through experiences where it's OK to try-and OK to fail. Then, you come back and try again."

When it comes to creativity, Kline says, "there's an overall cultural aspect. Is the environment you're operating in rewarding creativity?"

At Rose-Hulman, the answer is "yes." As Brackin observes, "Sometimes just giving people permission to be creative, allows them to be."