Using the arts and design to build student creative collaboration capacity

Community member post 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.

Conclusion

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.

Co-producing research: Why we need to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go

Community member post by Bev J. Holmes

Bev J. Holmes (biography)

The co-production or co-creation of research is not new – action based research traditions can lay claim to a long history, but are those of us involved in co-production doing enough to understand what it means?

In their work on public involvement, Antoine Boivin and colleagues (2014) note there is such widespread support for the rhetoric of co-production that we may dismiss (I would add not even acknowledge) the tensions that arise when professionals and lay people work together. Co-production in health research is similar. We need to work harder to say what we mean, mean what we say, and learn as we go. Continue reading

Improving mutual consultation among key stakeholders to optimize the use of research evidence

Community member post by Allison Metz

Alison Metz
Allison Metz (biography)

Processes to support the uptake of research evidence call for each of the key stakeholders to consider the challenges faced by other key stakeholders in making good use of research evidence. When stakeholders have the opportunity to consider perspectives other than their own, they will generally have a broader understanding of the problem space, and, in turn a greater commitment to co-creating prototypes for improving research translation.

Let’s consider a real world example in New York City’s public child welfare system. Continue reading

Learning from Google about inter- and transdisciplinary leadership

Community member post by Janet G. Hering

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Janet G. Hering (biography)

Like most engineers, the Google leadership had assumed that the leader of an engineering team must be at least as competent technically as the members of the team. As Laszlo Bock described in his 2015 book Work Rules!, however, a data-driven assessment disproved this assumption. The counter-intuitive result of “Project Oxygen” was that having “important technical skills that help advise the team” only ranked number eight in the list of key attributes differentiating the most from the least effective managers.

This is very good news for leaders of inter- and transdisciplinary synthesis projects since it’s highly unlikely that these leaders could have all the subject expertise relevant to their projects. If subject expertise is not the most important characteristic of leadership, then what kind of expertise should leaders have and what kind of roles do they play? How important are leaders and leadership in such synthesis projects? Continue reading

Transkillery! What skills are needed to be a boundary crosser?

Community member post by Dena Fam, Tanzi Smith and Dana Cordell

dena-fam_2
Dena Fam (biography)

What skills and dispositions are required by researchers and practitioners in transdisciplinary research and practice in crossing boundaries, sectors and paradigms?

The insights here come from interviews with 14 internationally recognized transdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, chosen from a diverse range of research and practice-based perspectives.

tanzi-smith
Tanzi Smith (biography)

Here we focus on:

1) skills for specific tasks such as facilitation of a meeting, crafting a well-written report, and communicating effectively across disciplines; and,

cordell
Dana Cordell (biography)

2) dispositions, attitudes, orientations and temperaments of an effective researcher/practitioner, i.e., as a way of being.

 

Six categories of skills and dispositions

The core skills and dispositions of an exceptional transdisciplinary researcher/practitioner can be grouped into six categories, illustrated in the figure below. Continue reading

Research team performance

Community member post by Jennifer E. Cross and Hannah Love

jennifer-cross
Jennifer E. Cross (biography)

How can we improve the creativity and performance of research teams?

Recent studies on team performance have pointed out that the performance and creativity of teams has more to do with the social processes of interaction on teams, than on individual personality traits. Research on creativity and innovation in teams has found that there are three key predictors of team success:

  1. group membership,
  2. rules of engagement, and
  3. patterns of interaction.

Each of these three predictors can be influenced in order to improve the performance of teams, as the following examples show. Continue reading