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A Playful Approach to Practicing Creativity and Innovation

Curricular materials created for the 2016 SAIL seminar:

Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem

As we observed on our SAIL seminar in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs successfully leverage available connections. This workshop module illustrates how to use available connections, and it can be added to any class or combination of classes, extended or condensed depending on the availability of time and resources.

The pedagogical benefit of this type of Design Thinking workshop is that it is multi-functional and can apply easily to a variety of disciplines or situations.

Design Thinking Workshop

A one-day workshop to develop skills in collaboration, connective thinking and creativity. This module could be added to any course that would like to promote out-of-the-box thinking and problem solving and could be used for only one class or with multiple classes together.

We gathered students from three courses where innovation and creativity serve as important elements:

  1. Marketing (Mgmt 250)
  2. Sculpture/Direct Metal (Art 224)
  3. Integration & Application in Environmental Studies (EnvSt 281).

Different classes bring a wide array of disciplinary practices and thinking, ensuring multi-functional teams and a broad variety of perspectives. The 200 level enabled students to bring a level of sophistication, knowledge and maturity to the assignments.

The module is best used early in the semester and/or at the start of a project to prepare students to creatively solve an issue or start a project once returning to class. Students can continue to develop the workshop projects throughout the semester, with more discipline specific perspectives and the opportunity for integration of research. Students might tackle new or more targeted course projects with an enriched sense of possibilities and an increased ability to apply divergent or out-of-the-box thinking to their project.


Concept/Content goals

Students will learn to:

  1. Foster creativity by building on, and enhancing, methods developed in the Stanford’s d.school (see Resources & Materials for more information).
  2. Demonstrate how essential innovation is to problem solving in a multidisciplinary and discipline-specific environment (micro versus macro, how lenses offer different perspectives but can be limiting).
  3. Think broadly and to take risks in a supportive environment.

Higher Order Skills/Goals

  • Idea generation: Encouraging wild thinking where feasibility is not an issue.
  • The benefit of iteration: Moving from a variety of ideas to a tangible prototype — abstraction to creation. Improvisation — starting from nothing, chance mechanism to determine the start and parameters of their task.
  • Teamwork/Collaboration: Egalitarian, genuine and unforced including the importance valuing the perspectives of others.
  • Creativity: That there is a process to creative practice.
  • Embracing failure

Multidisciplinary Analysis Skills/Goals

This design thinking module uses human-centered design which asks students to use empathy in developing their solutions to the problem or challenge provided. This requires students to collaborate closely and listen to each and all insights provided.

Marketing students

Use design-thinking techniques to develop a strategic marketing plan for a community organization.

Environmental studies students

Primary work focuses on team-based academic civic engagement projects and how sustainable communities emerge from citizen commitment and shared values.

Art students

Use a collaborative design thinking approach to explore numerous approaches to the class project — designing and building a single object that could mechanically transform its function and form.

Other Skills/Goals

Students will learn to:

  • Develop a sense of what fosters a creative environment — emphasis on the importance of play, having fun in the activity and nurturing opportunity to consider “what if”?
  • Model the liberal arts ideal by intentional engagement of multiple classes from different disciplinary perspectives and the not allowing one to dominate.


Core Exercise Outline

  1. Students create 3 kinds of cards that capture the essence of a known functional entity (see Resources & Materials for printable PDF cut-outs).
    1. Object Card (e.g. toaster)
    2. Function Card (e.g. browns bread)
    3. Descriptor/Materials Card (e.g. silver metal and black plastic)
  2. Gather the 3 card types into separate piles, disassociating an object from its function and description. Shuffle each pile to ensure good mixing of the contributions.
  3. Teams, originally in pairs, select one card from each pile (object, function, description), and then think broadly to brainstorm “products or inventions” with the attributes listed on the 3 cards (divergent thinking).
  4. Once the team has come up with two really good ideas, they pair up with another group to share feedback on their two iterations.
  5. Instruct teams to select the best of their ideas (convergent thinking) and use the provided materials to fabricate rough initial prototypes.
  6. At the end of the workshop teams present their ideas to the whole group for discussion and feedback.

Dissemination Strategies

Teaching Notes

Number of workshop participants

The challenge with our seminar was that there were over 60 students in the three classes. Typical design thinking exercises are with smaller numbers of students. We were careful to build cross functional teams that had proportional representation from each class to harness the diversity of perspectives. Prior to beginning the event, make sure you get commitments from all students who plan to participant and then spend some time putting them into well-mixed teams that can be quickly posted the day of your event. This worked very well.


It is paramount that the setting supports prototyping and removes students from their typical college environment. A traditional classroom space may not be conducive to this type of activity, unless you can augment the space in preparation for the workshop. We used the Flaten Art Barn which is on the periphery of campus adjacent to the College’s land restorations and wind turbine. The facility has a single large lower room and a small upper loft, which when properly configured allowed for discreet, multiple, comfortable work spaces.

Prototype materials

A variety of prototyping materials should be available. This can really be any materials on hand but our favorites include:

(Lots of) Cardboard Textured cardstock Zipties Sharpies Duct tape (multiple colors)
Pipe cleaners Clay Magnets Snaps Masking tape
Scotch tape Paper clips Wire Cable ties Fabric scraps
Plastic Foam sheets Post-it notes Foil Stickers (alphabet, numeric, etc)
Yarn/string Popsicle sticks Bamboo skewers Dowels Rubber bands
Foam shapes Ribbon Scrap wood Writing pads Sketch paper

Recommended Tools

Thin masonite sheets on which to do knife cutting and hole punching.

Hot glue guns Pencils Assorted markers (Fine point) black sharpies Glue sticks
Hole punch Scissors Stapler (w/ staples) Rulers/Tape measures Utility knives

Food and Music

To assist with a more creative and inviting environment it is ideal to include fun snacks, a casual lunch and music.

Resources & Materials

Design Thinking Resources

Instructors need to be educated in the basis of Design Thinking Principles. The following Design Thinking online resources provide a useful outline:

Stanford’s d.school

A crash course in design thinking



The Human-centered Design ToolKit

Cooper Hewitt

Ready, Set, Design! 20 minute activity

The Lean Startup

Methodology Principles

A Playful Approach to Practicing Creativity and Innovation

A collaboration established between Analytical Chemistry & Laboratory (Chemistry 255/256) and the bronze casting/sculpture course (Art 223) resulted in an entirely new laboratory experiment bridging creative processes and practice. Read the following documents for additional information.

Role-Playing in Analytical Chemistry

Paul Jackson, July 2017

Analytical Consulting and the Arts – Composition and Recycling of Silicon Bronze for Sculpture

Paul Jackson, Fall 2017

PDF printable cut-outs for card activity

Additional Readings & Videos

The Art of the Eco-Mindshift

Natalie Jeremijenko, TED Talk 2009

The Artist Who Talks with the Fishes

Jonah Weiner, New York Times Magazine June 28, 2013

A Moonshot Approach to Change in Higher Education: Creativity, Innovation, and the Redesign of Academia

Leticia Britos Cavagnaro and Humera Fasihuddin, Liberal Education Spring 2016 Vol. 102 No. 2

The Art and Craft of Science

R. & M. Root-Bernstein, Educational Leadership 2013 Vol. 70 No. 5 Pages 16-2

The Creative Process of an Oscar-Winning Screenwriter

Omar Kardoudi & Dustin Lance Black, Sploid (Gizmodo) July 8, 2014

Outcomes and Significance


We report here the results of three assessment strategies employed in the execution of this module: faculty observations during the event, a class debriefing session, and evidence from class assignments. We looked for evidence supporting idea generation/wild thinking, iteration/improvisation, teamwork, a creative process, and the ability to embrace failure. Since this kind of experience was quite new to the Environmental Studies class, they served as the main assessment group.

Faculty Observations

Mind stretching: Idea generation, improvisation, and acting/speaking in front of their peers

The faculty members did their best to highlight some examples of the actions and then encouraged/invited students to join. About one-third of those assembled dove into this activity. While at some moments it felt like we were pulling teeth to get them going, there was much laughter about the room.

Toward the end of the stretching activity the students were contributing ideas at a much faster rate. They took creative clues from the initial idea to improvise a vignette and act it out. The willingness of students (and faculty leaders) to “let it hang out” set the stage for a productive invention process.

Invention Challenge: Wild thinking, iterate/improvise, work as a team, follow a creative process, and embrace failure

In every team we did not see anyone checking out of the activity. Team members shared group leadership and frequently used the question, “What if?” throughout the process. Every group thought about their three cards in a way that connected to a human need, whether it was about delivering emergency supplies by drone after a disaster to creating a floating city that attempted to envision a different way to approach the topic of sustainable living to a compostable instrument case for a guitar. This was not a specific part of our prompt but one that emerged from the grassroots creative thinking that students expressed and owned.

What amazed the faculty was that the students did not just seek out one of us — they no longer differentiated us as faculty members from a specific class, but simply co-creators there to assist in whatever way the teams needed.

Environmental Studies

Debrief Discussion

The integration and applications environmental studies course discussed the innovation and creativity workshop about 10 days after the weekend event. What follows is a summary of the points students made about the experience.

“I am still riding the creativity high two weeks later.”

“The experience was low pressure with no judgement about ideas and contributions — a welcome change from other class and group experiences.”

“Putting the feasibility piece aside really enabled creative thinking and initial design.”

In addition the class provided unsolicited comments about the role of the faculty members in facilitating the workshop.

Faculty consistently checked-in with all the groups, did so in a way that wasn’t intrusive, and you felt their genuine curiosity about what the team was doing.

Faculty asked good questions of us that helped open up our creativity.

Final Reflective Paper

Students were asked to integrate their academic work with the civic engagement project by reflecting on and discussing the extent to which the knowledge gained and refined gets translated into actions that forward environmental initiatives and organizational goals.

Nearly half of the class wrote about how their future work and the pursuit of sustainability in community requires attention to creativity (35%) and innovation (12%). When it came to their specific civic engagement project nearly one-third (5) of the papers discussed how the team established space for creativity and innovation within their work.

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