Bioengineering capstone course implements theater techniques

The class encourages students to think using more divergent methods to find more than one solution to a problem.

The College of Engineering and theatre department have partnered to construct a capstone course for bioengineering students. The class introduces traditional theater techniques to students in a bioengineering design course in order to teach them creativity and the importance of taking risks in their work.

At his children’s dress rehearsal for a school play, MU bioengineering professor Ferris Pfeiffer first realized the importance of combining theater techniques with traditional classroom procedures.

Pfeiffer sat in the audience among other parents and restless school children, waiting for the cast to finish a costume change. The director noticed the children in the audience getting “a little loud and rowdy,” Pfeiffer said, and decided that the best way to combat the fidgety audience would be a talent show.

Pfeiffer said that after the director asked for volunteers to go on stage to perform an original act, every hand shot up.

What struck him was how willing every student was to go on stage and participate in this impromptu talent show.

It was surprising to see how fearless the children were, he said.

“They didn’t care about looking silly; they didn’t care about what others thought of them,” Pfeiffer said. “They had an answer; they wanted to go show what they knew how to do. I want my engineers to exhibit those same qualities.”

With this experience in mind, Pfeiffer wanted to know if there was a way to teach creativity and the same kind of bravery to his own students at MU.

Pfeiffer looked into courses and programs at MU and found the Center for Applied Theatre and Drama Research within the theater department. The mission of the center is to “explore the application of theatrical processes to teaching and learning in multiple disciplines,” according to its website.

Pfeiffer reached out to Director Suzanne Burgoyne of the research center. Burgoyne had already done some research studying how creativity can play a role in other disciplines on a college campus, she said. Burgoyne then told Pfeiffer she would help him set up a pilot course for the fall semester of the 2014-15 academic year.

The first year, Burgoyne and a graduate student of hers helped to teach a bioengineering capstone course of about 20 students for six weeks. There was also a “control class” of bioengineering students that did not take Burgoyne’s class.

Pfeiffer and Burgoyne assigned the students journal entries for each class, in which they wrote down their reflections after the activity. Burgoyne said a lot of students wrote about how their minds changed completely after the class.

One student wrote about how he realized there’s “no reason” he can’t be himself and act silly during a class activity.

“There’s no rule that says you can’t be an excellent engineer if you step outside the traditional engineering box,” Burgoyne read from the journal entry.

This was a significant discovery for Burgoyne. She said she realized how students can benefit by learning from theater students.

Pfeiffer said most engineering students are apprehensive of the theater course at first. However, as the weeks go on, the students adjust.

“Once we engage them and they actually understand what we’re doing, they absolutely love it,” he said.

Burgoyne agreed with this statement and said the “buy-in” from students has become an issue. Most engineering students don’t want to participate in an environment that requires taking risks, she said. They’re afraid of failure and making mistakes in front of other people.

“[Engineering students] listen to lectures and they build things, but they don’t do all this stuff where they have to learn to take risks,” she said. “You have to be able to take risks in order to be creative. If you’re afraid of taking risks, you can’t do anything new.”

In addition, Burgoyne distributed self-efficacy tests based on how the students saw themselves in terms of their own abilities in the capstone course.

Burgoyne said students enrolled in the creativity course improved twice as much compared to the control class.

“That really seemed to us an indication that we might really have something here,” she said. From there, Pfeiffer and Burgoyne applied for a grant from Mizzou Advantage, which provided them with funds for another course the following year.

The bioengineering design course is taught twice a week, with lectures on Tuesdays and the theater-based class on Thursdays for an hour and 15 minutes. Pfeiffer said he always sees more students in the Thursday theater-related class as opposed to the lecture on Tuesday.

The Thursday class has a variety of activities, Pfeiffer said. For example, one of the first activities is called “40 ways to cross a room.” It involves students splitting into groups and crossing from one side of the room to another in any way they’d like. The only rule is that they can’t do something that another group has already done.

Pfeiffer said that the first group will typically walk, the next group will run, the third might hop. Eventually, it gets to a point where the students are struggling for ideas to get from one end to the other. This is when you see students doing piggyback rides and hopping on one foot, the more “creative and silly” methods, Pfeiffer said.

Pfeiffer said this demonstrates the importance of implementing divergent thinking in classrooms. He said most teachers teach using convergent thinking, by asking a question that has one answer and only one way to achieve that answer.

With divergent thinking, Pfeiffer said, there are multiple ways to achieve an answer. He relates this back to his engineering design class by explaining to them that the first couple of answers or solutions they have for any given problem will most likely already have been thought of; they’re the “boring” ideas.

However, with more creative and divergent thinking, engineers can find more outside-the-box solutions.

Pfeiffer said he hopes his students understand that they are inherently creative and have the opportunity within the classroom to participate in risk-taking activities.

“I want them to take out of it that it’s okay to be wrong; it’s okay to fail,” he said. “I want them to take chances and I want them to utilize what we give them here in different ways.”

Edited by Olivia Garrett | ogarrett@themaneater.com

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