Creative Thinking and Entrepreneurship
By Alyssa Schoeneman, AEL Intern
Creativity – some say, you’ve either got it, or you don’t. If you are enrolled in Bruce Elliott-Litchfield’s Creativity, Innovation and Vision course, however, your fate might not be quite so static.
Elliott-Litchfield, Director of the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education and an Assistant Dean of Engineering Undergraduate Programs, is deeply invested in researching and teaching creativity enhancement; he and his research team are currently working under an NSF (National Science Foundation) grant with a focus on enhancing creative capacity, and they are paying special attention to the ways in which engineering students learn creativity. Elliott-Litchfield’s Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership–funded course, however, is open to all Illinois students.
“The career aspirations of the students in the class vary widely,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “Their majors include Accounting, Advertising, Agriculture, Art, Engineering, English…but most all of the students have wanted to get a job where they can utilize their creativity in some way.”
One goal for his students, Elliott-Litchfield continued, is that they will go on to be ambassadors, further infusing creative thinking into the workforce; Elliott-Litchfield hopes his course will teach students how to enhance their own creativity, and how to then assist others in doing the same.
Based on his research, Elliott-Litchfield has found that for most students, creativity does not increase significantly during the college years.
“Most of the things [college professors] do in class center on training students to recall facts and to think critically,” he said. “The marvelous ability of our minds to classify and recall can actually work against creativity in many situations.”
Yet, the more that students know, the greater potential they have for creativity; students who have a greater knowledge base have an increased capacity from which to synthesize ideas.
“Most new ideas are a fusion of two preexisting ones,” Elliott-Litchfield said.
During one of the first times that his class meets, Elliott-Litchfield does an exercise to illustrate this principle; he creates small groups of three or four students and asks them to get acquainted with one another by sharing a few of their interests.
“I challenge them to do a juxtaposition, or overlay, of the interests of two or more of the students in the group to create a new invention or idea,” he said.
Elliott-Litchfield says that he sees creativity as being one of the early steps of entrepreneurship, and that he has two definitions for the term.
“Creativity includes the having of an idea, thinking of something new – that’s Definition One,” he said. “Definition Two is bringing an idea into being, making something new. Those two actions are central to entrepreneurship.”
Elliott-Litchfield cites a class he took as an undergraduate (Creativity in Mechanical Engineering Design) as his inspiration for the Academy-funded course.
“As I thought about the information I had learned while I was in school and about the skills I’d acquired, and particularly about which of those things were most useful, I kept coming back to that class,” he said. “I think the fact that I had an opportunity to teach something that had made such a big difference in my career and the fact that the Illinois curriculum needed it were my inspiration to teach this course.”
In general, Elliott-Litchfield explained, his course focuses on a way of thinking that is creative, divergent or “horizontal,” versus the more traditional analytical, critical or “vertical” thinking that is highlighted in most college courses.
“It is a different way of thinking … the course encourages students to be open-minded,” he said. “To know how to do both kinds of thinking at the right times…to think creatively and to also be able to think critically are vital skills.”
Creativity has certainly seeped into Elliott-Litchfield’s academic life; he has redirected his research from a focus on Agricultural and Biological Engineering to a focus on creativity, and he is working with his co-investigators to contribute to the Illinois Engineering curriculum via iFoundry, an initiative to reform engineering programs of study.
“We were thinking about the Engineering curriculum and about how to change it, and we decided that creativity will play a bigger role in the future,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “We are now encouraging a group of iFoundry students – we had 75 in last year’s freshman class and we have 300 this year – to propose the path that they would like their curriculum to take.”
The engineering faculty is welcoming proposals by students to shape their own curricula; these students will be used as a test group and the faculty will note and learn from their results.
“The information we learn will inform our curriculum changes in the future,” Elliott-Litchfield said. “Curriculum reform is a creative endeavor itself.”
Now how’s that for thinking horizontally and vertically at the same time?
Entrepreneurial course taught by Professor Litchfield
ENG 333, Creativity, Innovation and Vision
Personal creativity enhancement via exploration of the nature of creativity, how creativity works, and how to envision what others may not. Practice of techniques and processes to enhance personal and group creativity and to nurture a creative lifestyle. Application to a major term project providing the opportunity to move an idea, product, process or service from vision to reality.
Visit Course Catalog website for course availability
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About Professor Litchfield
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