Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

By Edgar Cardenas

Edgar Cardenas (biography)

How can undergraduate and graduate students be helped to build their interdisciplinary collaboration capacity? In particular, how do they build capacity between the arts and other disciplines?

In 2018, I co-facilitated the annual, 3-day Emerging Creatives Student Summit, an event for approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students from 26 universities organized by the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities. Students’ majors ranged from the sciences, engineering, music, arts, and design.

The aim of the summit is to give students an opportunity to collaborate on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts. Our experience from previous summits is that student teams often invest a lot of energy in the project ideation phase and then burn out during development. Further, it can be difficult to develop projects on short time frames, causing student projects to meander until the night before final day presentations. To combat this issue, I devised and facilitated a 90-minute design-thinking workshop for students on the first full day, specifically on project ideation and development.

In this blog post I describe how I developed the student workshop and how it was used to shape the summit.

The workshop was informed by two key underlying assumptions:

  1. Interdisciplinary collaboration is a skill that can be developed, and it must be developed to attain the level of creativity required for addressing complex challenges.
  2. Students are motivated to collaborate across disciplines, but need the proper social conditions and facilitation for engaging in productive collaborations.

Pre-summit and pre-workshop preparation

To help the students prepare for both the workshop and the summit I adopted a model based on the ‘flipped classroom’. This allowed students to gain foundational knowledge on collaboration and creativity prior to the summit. One benefit of such a model is that students can learn content at their own pace. An additional benefit is that the workshop and other summit time can then be fully dedicated to practicing collaboration skills, deep interactions with mentors, and developing robust team projects.

To provide content in advance, I created three short videos (approximately 10 minutes each) and shared one per week leading up to the summit. Two of the videos included exercises. They covered the following:

  1. Creative Collaboration (Difference): How to identify and navigate cognitive diversity.
  2. Creative Collaboration (Frameworks): Processes for problem definition, divergent idea generation, idea structuring (pattern recognition) and validation, testing the answer/product, and iterating.
  3. Creative Collaboration (Methods): Working team dynamics, for creative problem solving:
    1. Mindsets for working through problem solving.
    2. Dispositions that help lubricate the interactions between team members.
    3. Process components for iterating through an identified challenge space.

The videos were provided through an invitation-only Facebook page, which also allowed participants to introduce themselves, share content, and continue conversations during and after the summit.

The workshop and the summit: ideation, facilitation, and feedback

There were three key initiatives to help students achieve the summit aim of collaborating on projects that incorporate creativity and the arts:

  1. The workshop on project ideation and development.
  2. Support from content experts.
  3. Constructive feedback.

Workshop on project ideation and development

The workshop entailed:

  1. Identifying a challenge of interest to address.
  2. Brainstorming ideas to address the challenge via the nominal group technique.
  3. Structuring and validating which ideas have the most potential.
  4. Storyboarding how the project may unfold and what the experience may feel like.
  5. Evaluating the outcome and iterating on steps one through four as needed.

As this can be daunting, I sought to lessen stress by (a) drawing attention to the content experts who would support them and (b) emphasizing how the act of making is a process of thinking.

Students developing ideas during the design thinking workshop (copyright: Edgar Cardenas)


Students storyboarding project ideas (copyright: Edgar Cardenas)

Support from content experts

Amabile (1996) identifies three components individuals need to be creative: (a) domain expertise, (b) task motivation, and (c) creativity relevant skills. Students were generally motivated, gained creativity relevant skills through the videos, but did not have domain expertise. Thus, faculty, staff, and myself served as resources to fill knowledge gaps. Most often, we supported students with two key challenges:

  1. Unknown unknowns; they don’t know what they don’t know. This is frustrating and discouraging for teams because they can’t find a way forward.
  2. Students struggle to connect multiple ideas into a coherent project.

Experts suggested directions they might want to explore, drew connections between seemingly disparate ideas, and provided students with the creative confidence necessary for making decisions.

Jennifer Krivickas, Assistant Vice President of Integrated Research at the University of Cincinnati, assisting students in the design of their project (copyright: Edgar Cardenas)

Constructive feedback

Feedback is arguably the most critical component of iterating through ideas, however it’s only useful if it provides clarity for next steps. Too often it can shift into a critical, unhelpful space. To combat this, I use highly structured peer feedback mechanisms. The one I employed with the students had four components for people to consider:

  • What do you like about this project?
  • What ideas do you have for changing this for experimentation purposes? (ie., What if you changed the location?).
  • What questions does the project, or a project component, raise for you?
  • What bright ideas does the project reveal for you?

Feedback to each of these questions was provided via sticky note. This gave students insightful, actionable feedback.

Lessons learned along the way

Despite careful planning, one cannot account for all the variables that will affect performance. The following are lessons learned during the summit.

  1. Always tailor feedback: Depending on the sensitivity of the individual, even constructive feedback may be resisted. This problem is compounded if multiple members of the group have high sensitivity.
  2. Processes should be in place to address absenteeism: Absentee students reduced group morale and work time was lost waiting for their return.
  3. Allow time for team building: Cohesive teams exhibited high morale and took advantage of the differing skillsets of team members.
  4. Monitor for strong personalities: These can often overly shape project outcomes, resulting in less investment from other team members.
  5. Be mindful of the impact of theme: Concrete themes (such as “food”) have quicker project implementation, while abstract themes (such as “spectacle”) require more development time.


The process of developing interdisciplinary collaboration capacity, especially when working across so many disciplines, is challenging. When face-time is limited, providing participants with content knowledge ahead of time can maximize information uptake and prime them for in-person collaborations. Aim to get students started on developing the project quickly. The outcomes will be rough but providing feedback and opportunities for iterations will both aid in refining the project and encourage learning on how to navigate the social dimensions of collaborations. High-touch facilitation provides participants with the customized attention that helps them get unstuck and moving forward.

Do any of these insights resonate with you? Do you have additional lessons to share?

To find out more:
For readings to reflect on the assumptions underpinning the workshop, see Amabile’s Componential Theory of Creativity and Hackman’s work on the conditional components of collaborative intelligence.

Amabile, T. M. (1996). Creativity in context: Update to the social psychology of creativity. Westview Press: Boulder, United States of America

Hackman, J. R. (2011). Collaborative intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems. Berrett-Koehler: San Fransisco, United States of America

Hackman, J. R. (2012). From causes to conditions in group research. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 3: 428-444

Biography: Edgar Cardenas Ph.D. recently completed his Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellowship with the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities where he focused on approaches for fostering productive artist-scientist collaborations. As a social scientist, he focuses on social creativity and small group dynamics, exploring which processes and mechanisms support creative collaborations. As an interdisciplinary artist, he investigates the ecological, cultural, and technological subtleties of human/environment relationships. He is also a member of the indigenous artist collective, Radio Healer. In addition to his research and art practice, he has also developed, organized, facilitated, and led several artists-scientists collaborative projects, as well as moderated panels on this topic.

10 thoughts on “Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences Edgar which resonate for me regarding the workshops I’ve facilitated in the international development sector. One experience I wrote up as a paper for the Knowledge Management for Development Journal Special Issue on Facilitation. Here’s the abstract and open access link if you’d like to explore.

    Human-centred design is an approach to problem solving with its roots in commercial product and service design that is increasingly being used in the public sector and international development. This article offers an introduction to the approach, a case study of its application to problem solving with the Making All Voices Count programme in 12 countries of Africa and Asia, and reflections on its relevance to contemporary challenges and trends in facilitation in the international development sector. The article suggests that human-centred design supports a more engaged, interactive, collaborative, and learning orientated form of group work; is particularly suited to addressing complex challenges; and enables more shared responsibility for outcomes than traditional facilitation approaches. The article concludes that these benefits arise because, when used in the international development sector, human-centred design’s methodological foundation in the humanities offers a set of facilitation tools which feel both fresher and more holistic than those from the disciplines that already dominate the sector. Constraints and risks of using the approach noted relate to: availability of resources to support deep engagement; additional preparation time needed by facilitators; and the need for multiple facilitators for process documentation.

    • Thank you Carl. I downloaded your article so I can read it and add it to endnote. It’s good to see these methods are being applied in multiple sectors.

  2. These are terrific resources, Edgar! I will definitely use them in my food, ecology, and globalization class where we have a heterogenous set of students all coming to the issue of sustainable food systems from very different backgrounds and angles. thank you for sharing!

    • You’re welcome Eleanor. I actually developed much of this work for artist-scientist teams working on sustainability challenges, i.e. wicked problems necessitating creative solutions. The one thing I regularly remind students is that the challenges they encounter as teams are also opportunities. These productive frictions teach them to focus on the problem at hand and develop the tacit abilities critical for working with diverse teams. I hope the resources work well for your students.

  3. Great work Edgar, what an excellent model for an interdisciplinary flipped classroom. I wonder if you could tell me a little more about the peer feedback. I agree that guiding feedback is necessary and your questions are terrific. Did it work? Did students push each other forward?

    • Alexandra,
      It was a fruitful approach to getting feedback. Each team had these 4 questions – in the form of icons – placed on a quadrant on the wall so that students, faculty, and staff could post stickies to the quadrants. This provided an opportunity for feedback and discourse. People would come by and ask clarifying questions, prompted by the quadrant. It’s made clear to students that the feedback is an opportunity to improve their projects, suggestions versus requirements. Hence, teams still had agency in how they responded to feedback and how they would move forward. Some teams took the feedback seriously and incorporated the critique into the next iteration. Those teams performed best in terms of better developed designs. Teams should have agency regarding how they incorporate feedback to help them cement their autonomy; it may take them more iterations to reach a compelling outcome if they resist feedback, but it’s all part of the learning process that aids in developing their collaborative capacity.

  4. Good stuff Edgar! I think the worst bit for a creative is having to deal with turgid, boring, and dualistic, un-integrated approaches to collaboration. A healthy respect for difference is possible but only if ‘hard science’ doesn’t continually dominate the research and collaboration landscape. For example, trying to co-create with RBT (Rational Behavior Therapy) and pastoral/spiritual care is fraught and needs to be MUTUALLY respected. I’ve yet to see them successfully work together in any mental health setting … RBT always wants to dominate … and unfortunately usually succeeds in silencing the ‘other’. Relational power is the issue.

    • Thank you Mary. The challenges you mention are indeed difficult to overcome. I think these particular types of challenges often stem from two significant issues, (1) a misalignment between the perspectives, methods, and predictive interpretations of different disciplines (see Scott Page’s “The Difference), and (2) a lack of clarity regarding how broadly or narrowly to define the problem. The first one is challenging to overcome without developing a working relationship that opens each collaborator up to different ways for interrogating a problem, it takes a willingness to dedicate the time and energy necessary for developing interactional expertise. The second issue often arises when the collaborators fail to co-identify the problem and one person identifies a question that does not account for the methods of inquiry or skillsets of one of the other collaborators. In effect the other collaborators find it difficult to aid in the development of a coherent and compelling solution to a problem that has been narrowly defined. It may sound simple but mutual respect and trust smoothes many of these issues and should be considered a starting point for interdisciplinary collaboration. If collaborators enter the relationship by believing that their fellow collaborators have something unique to offer, they will stay open to co-creation.


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