In the facilities maintenance shed at Franklin & Marshall College, senior environmental science major Boss Yolson Louis peered through safety goggles. Sparks sprayed from the circular saw he gripped while he cut through a chunk of metal for his welding project.
Nearby, Professor of Film and Media Studies Dirk Eitzen watched Louis and other students in his Creativity, Innovation & Design class use various metalworking tools, including welding torches. Eitzen co-teaches the class with Janine Everett, director and assistant teaching professor of the public health program, and Nydia Manos, instructional technologist.
“It’s exciting to do something that is outside your comfort zone,” Eizten said. “Try out ideas, experience failure, and recover from that by finding how to make the idea work.”
For students like Louis enrolled this semester in the CID course, the experience of using tools for projects not even remotely connected to their majors has been enlightening in many respects.
“The experience in this class has really been amazing,” Louis said. “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just in there trying to innovate and create new things. It puts you in an environment where everyone is under the same pressure of ‘How can I figure out how to be creative with the challenges that have been assigned?’"
Across campus, in a windy field where F&M students keep their gardens, three CID students work with two faculty members and two staffers to fill five newly made wooden plant boxes. The student-made boxes were built in the same try-fail-try environment as the welding projects.
“We didn’t give them any required dimensions,” said Associate Professor of Physics Etienne Gagnon. “It was just, ‘Here’s what we want you to do, let’s see what you come up with.’”
As he helped haul buckets of earth to the various sized planters, Gagnon said, “We want them to be creative and innovative. We don’t want them to have five boxes that are the same shape.”
Garden boxes and welding are examples of how CID students learn to apply design-thinking methods. Each class has a large project that consumes much of their attention in the semester.
“The primary subject in our class is climate change,” saidAssociate Professor of Geosciences Robert Walter, who co-teaches with Gagnon and Emily Seitz, assistant director of fellowships and grants. “We have five groups working with five community partners, helping each partner solve a climate-change-related problem. We encourage our students to use artificial intelligence and machine learning as tools to refine the Big Data associated with this topic.”
Gagnon said most of the students in the course had never used woodworking tools before, which was one point of the project.
“We often say in this class, ‘You want to have as many tools in your toolbox as possible, as far as thinking of creative solutions,’” he said. “If you are not afraid to use these tools, it becomes less scary when you do your big project.”
Like the other students, Maura Smith, a senior physics and economics major, found the absence of writing responses to readings for the course a stimulating change as she and her fellow collaborators went about figuring out how to build a plant box.
“We came into a lot of problems as we were building it and we had to do problem-solving on the spot,” Smith said. “This was real-life problem-solving – we have to do this measurement, and do this angle in order to get our pieces to fit.”
Indeed, CID students learn to find effective strategies through each individual’s contribution to the group, said Walter.
“We’ve learned that this concept of design thinking is extremely helpful in finding a solution,” he said. “Bringing in students from various backgrounds and making it as much a diverse community as one traditionally gets in a disciplinary class helps accelerate and incubate this kind of process.”
Jason Zucker, a senior government major, believes the challenge of developing strategies to complete a project while working collaboratively builds skills widely applicable.
“We’re learning tools that we will take with us beyond college,” Zucker said. “Maybe we won’t be building garden beds, but they’re skills that are applicable to many things. The design-thinking process can be applied to almost anything.”