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.

Looking for patterns: An approach for tackling tough problems

Community member post by Scott D. Peckham

Scott D. Peckham (biography)

What does the word ‘pattern’ mean to you? And how do you use patterns in addressing complex problems?

Patterns are repetitions. These can be in space, such as patterns in textiles and wallpaper, which include houndstooth, herringbone, paisley, plaid, argyle, checkered, striped and polka-dotted.

The pattern concept can also be applied to repetitions in time, as occur in music. Those who know the temporal patterns can classify a piece of music as a blues, waltz or salsa. For each of these types of music, there are also classic dance steps, that usually go by the same name; these are patterns of movement in space and time.

These examples get to the idea that patterns can be viewed more generally as any type of repetitive structure or recurring theme that we can look for and potentially recognize or discover and then assign a memorable name to, such as “houndstooth” or “waltz”. Recognizing the pattern may then indicate a particular course of action, such as “perform dance moves that go with a waltz”.

The ability to recognize a pattern and then take appropriate action is something that we associate with intelligence. Continue reading

Two barriers to interdisciplinary thinking in the public sector and how time graphs can help

Community member post by Jane MacMaster

jane-macmaster
Jane MacMaster (biography)

After one year or so delivering seminars that share practical techniques to help navigate complexity to public sector audiences, I’ve observed two simple and fundamental barriers to dealing more effectively with complex, interdisciplinary problems in the public sector.

First, is the lack of time to problem-solve – to pause and reflect on an issue, to build a deeper understanding of it, to think creatively about it from different angles, to think through some ideas, to test out some ideas. There is too much else going on.

Second, is that it’s often quite difficult to put one’s collective finger on what, exactly, the problem is. Continue reading

Problem framing and co-creation

Community member post by Graeme Nicholas

graeme-nicholas
Graeme Nicholas (biography)

How can people with quite different ways of ‘seeing’ and thinking about a problem discover and negotiate these differences?

A key element of co-creation is joint problem definition. However, problem definition is likely to be a matter of perspective, or a matter of how each person involved ‘frames’ the problem. Differing frames are inevitable when participants bring their differing expertise and experience to a problem. Methods and processes to support co-creation, then, need to manage the coming together of people with differing ways of framing the problem, so participants can contribute to joint problem definition. Continue reading