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Feature: Creativity Exploratory Sparks Students' Innovation

  • Author:
    Mike Jenkins
  • Published:
    Winter 2013
An exciting new program at the College of Arts and Letters aims to awaken the creativity of students, enhance teamwork and spark innovation.
Watching more than 100 engaged College of Arts and Letters and other MSU students interact with internationally renowned creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson at MSU’s Wharton Center, Dean Karin Wurst realized she was seeing the achievement of one of the goals of the Creativity Exploratory, or CE.
“The Creativity Exploratory was envisioned as a concept to teach the creative process in a collaborative environment, to add more value to the undergraduate experience in CAL, and to make students more marketable,” says Dean Wurst.  “As we know from employers, and our alums, the ability to work in teams, and to manage projects, to work with people from other fields and cultures, are highly desirable competencies.  The CE is set up to provide those opportunities to students from across CAL to work on projects together.”
An innovative, practice-based co-curricular addition to the CAL programming, the CE is designed to enhance the college’s majors. The Exploratory provides a step beyond honing the core skills of the majors—writing, research, information organization, visual and textual literacy—by bringing these various skill sets together in a free-spirited laboratory setting that offers rich cross-fertilization. 
“We want to empower our students to build on their broad-based skills and surpass conventional disciplinary boundaries to spark creative innovation,” says Dean Wurst.  “These project-based collaborations bring students in contact with peers from other disciplines within the college to learn from one another.”
Guided by a Design Process
Creativity Exploratory activities are guided by a stylized, interdisciplinary form of design thinking as students work each project through several stages from defining, researching and brainstorming, creating models, selecting and processing feedback, to revising for a final product.  Throughout the process, students learn about digital tools to support their work.  Understanding and learning this creative, innovative process is a transportable skill itself, and the deliverables of the work are valuable resume- and portfolio-building products for CAL majors. 
The projects surrounding the Sir Ken Robinson visit in March 2012 are excellent examples of how this process works.  The event was conceived, planned, organized, managed and implemented by Creativity Exploratory student fellows, along with English Education students working with the Center for Applied Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Arts and Humanities.  Held prior to CAL’s Spring Signature Lecture by Robinson, it was tied to the 10th anniversary rewrite of his classic work on creativity and innovation, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative.  In addition, Creativity Exploratory students also organized and conducted a 90-minute creative interlude that included performances and activities by a variety of MSU student groups.
Several CE fellows planned, organized, managed and presided over a book reading, discussion and lecture at the MSU Library of Sir Ken’s book in the weeks running up to the lecture.  In an early meeting with CE Fellow Kat Palczewski, who had proposed the book event, the MSU Library agreed to be the co-sponsor as part of its Library Colloquia Series.
From the Beginning
First envisioned in 2008 by Dean Wurst, the Creativity Exploratory was launched in Fall 2011 with visits and student workshops by Liam Keating, design team leader for the tablet project at Conde Nast-UK (GQ, Vogue, Vanity Fair and Wired magazines); and College of Arts and Letters 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award winner and founder of two successful golf sportswear companies, Nancy Haley.
Also in Fall 2011, Professional 
Writing  Professor Danielle Nicole DeVoss, as CE convener, began building a team to run the Creativity Exploratory.  “MSU has an interest and commitment to STEM work, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” she notes.  “The CE adds ‘the Arts’ to these four core disciplines, thus changing the acronym to STEAM.  The goal is to combine the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer so that creativity and innovation are combined with design, performance, expression and human-based problem solving.  This is crucial in a world where, as educators, we’re preparing students for jobs that may not yet exist.
“When we engage students in habits and behaviors that both complement and also extend their disciplinary foci, we’re preparing them to be creative, innovative, nimble, collaboration-oriented leaders in our current dynamic workplaces.”
CE Fellows
Professor DeVoss says that establishing the undergraduate CE fellows program was an exciting step for the program.  Each year, CAL undergraduates apply for six paid Creativity Exploratory Fellows positions.  
“In late fall 2011, we hired six stellar fellows,” DeVoss says. “Since then, they’ve proposed and launched some stunning research projects and helped to enhance the research profile of the CE.”
Throughout the school year, fellows perform research for the CE; host special events such as Sir Ken Robinson’s visit, student open houses and community forums; hold brainstorming sessions for a variety of projects; help design, create and implement student workshops; and complete a myriad of other creative tasks. 
DeVoss notes that the fellows were instrumental to the CE offering a summer camp for middle-school girls on digital storytelling;  in addition, they represented the CE in July at the Detroit Maker Faire at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. 
Dean Wurst adds, “The fellows concept is extremely important because we want all students who wish to participate in the CE to have an opportunity to do so.  We don’t want to exclude students who must work to help support themselves, so we provide stipends that are in the same range as work-study wages. Unfortunately, we do not have enough private funding to expand beyond our current six fellows, so we are actively seeking private support to accommodate more students.”
Multimedia Projects
The CE took on a variety of multimedia projects, too, ranging from print publications, websites, videos and short films, to social media campaigns, including: 
The 517theory Graffiti Project – CAL students and faculty analyze Lansing-area graffiti projects and study how graffiti impacts and develops communities. 
The CATA Documentary Project –
 CE fellows explored  the importance of the CATA bus line to Lansing and East Lansing area citizens, and how it impacts the development of community in the greater Lansing area.
Help-Portrait – 
CE students recruited local photographers to use their photography skills to give back to the community.  People who could not afford professional family portraits had portraits taken free of charge, including prints.
TourGuide – 
CE Fellow Tatum Walker, an Art History and Visual Culture senior, assisted Director of Academic Technology Scott Schopieray and Brian Adams in creating, testing and rolling out this innovative, web-based mobile application that requires no native application to run.  (This project received private support from CAL alumnus Henry Timnick, ’57, MA ’58.)
CE Fellows, faculty, staff and/or associated students first proposed all these projects and more. Creativity Exploratory Fellows Kat Palczewski and Chelsea Kirksey proposed the CATA Project. The two Fellows hoped that by familiarizing themselves with Capital Area Transportation Authority, or CATA, bus riders might uncover ways to help bring the two communities closer together.
Palczewski, a sophomore in CAL’s Professional Writing and Residential College in the Arts and Humanities, proposed the CATA project.  She says she’d noticed a lack of communication between the residents of East Lansing and Lansing—two cities that are but a bus ride apart.
“We have Michigan’s largest university in East Lansing, and the state Capitol in Lansing, but there’s little connection between them,” Palczewski says.  “Other than the CATA buses.”
Palczewski and CE Fellow Chelsea Kirksey, art education sophomore, and five others created a documentary titled “The CATA Project,” which was presented at the University Undergraduate Research and Art Forum (UURAF) in April.  
 “The students came up with the idea, contacted CATA, met with them, pitched their project idea, followed up with CATA, arranged for all permits, and did all of the project planning and event coordination and management,” says Scott Schopieray, who helped mentor the students along the way.  
Adds Palczewski, “I feel like I have the best job on campus, and can’t imagine working anywhere else.  I’m excited to see how much the CE has grown this past year, and look forward to continuing to grow with it.”
CE as Experiential Learning Center
Students and faculty alike thrive in the CE’s creative, collaborative and nurturing environment.  Students have the freedom and the resources to explore issues beyond their coursework.  The interactions with faculty are richer than within the confines of a typical classroom.
Schopieray says he’s particularly interested in the experiential learning piece.
“The Creativity Exploratory is largely an experiential learning center, so we want students to do real life things,” he says.  “We want them to apply what they’re learning in their classes and around the university to real life situations.”
Schopieray touts helping Elder Law of Michigan with a website and translating documents for Spanish and Arabic speakers in the area as prime examples of real world “authentic tasks.”  
“The focus of the CE’s work has been quite broad,” he says.   
In Fall 2012, the CE sponsored three “Technology and Alumni Leaders” lectures and workshops tied to CAL’s 50th anniversary.  Featured were MSU alumni who now occupy key positions in both academia and movie studios. There was also a three-movie film series comprising discussions and class sessions with two high-profile CAL alumni—screenwriter Jack Epps (Top Gun) and former Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic (Fight Club). 
The CAL 50th Anniversary website ( included an area for alumni to vote for their favorite song of 1962-63, compiled by CE Fellow Sarah Matthews.  An anniversary ice cream flavor, “Arts and Letters Golden Apple,” was brainstormed by CE fellows and college staff and developed by the MSU Dairy Store. 
The CE conducted workshops on producing audio, video, bookmaking, a computer coding boot camp, food type, clock making, user experience design and assisting with the website,  “The communication skills, the time management, project management, and organizational skills that our students learn and develop in the process are absolutely necessary to get ahead in the real world,” Schopieray says.  
 “(The CE)  enabled us to make some friends on campus and in the community, from folks in REO Town in Lansing to collaborators at the Technology Information Center in East Lansing,” says DeVoss.  
DeVoss notes that in 2013 the CE plans two major activities—securing grants, and taking the program on the road.  “Beyond campus, we’re planning to present some of the theoretical, philosophical, and practical work of the CE at upcoming conferences this year, including the Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities and Computer Science in November,” she notes.
Dean Wurst adds that the growth of the Creativity Exploratory has been—and continues to be—a pleasant challenge.
 “Our current physical space limits growth to some extent, but we are thinking of spreading the concept to other environments,” she says.  “I would like to add an entrepreneurial dimension to it and possibly connect it to planned leadership initiatives for Arts and Letters majors.”  Beyond CAL students and majors, Dean Wurst believes there are additional opportunities to utilize the CE model in other venues. 
Vision Accomplished
Asked if the Creativity Exploratory is turning out as she envisioned, Dean Wurst says, “Yes, we’ve had a great mix of activities as a result of ongoing faculty input and guidance.  The CE has turned into something like a creative think tank.  Whenever there is a need in the college for some out-of-the-box thinking, the CE tends to get asked to be involved.”
CE Fellow Katie Pastor, a sophomore majoring in Japanese and Studio Art, sums up, “In the Creativity Exploratory, they want to see how big you can dream.”
Mike Jenkins, ’76, College of Arts and Letters communications director, returned to MSU in 2009 after 33 years with Fortune 100 firms, and several marketing, PR and design agencies, including his own.