New course explores computational creativity

(left) Students playing a computational sorting game; (right) A student documents his campus observations at his observation site. Both photos are from a previous honors seminar on creative thinking. Courtesy photos.
(left) Students playing a computational sorting game; (right) A student documents his campus observations at his observation site. Both photos are from a previous honors seminar on creative thinking. Courtesy photos.

New course explores computational creativity

calendar icon24 Aug 2017    user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen

Lincoln, Neb.—University of Nebraska–Lincoln School of Art, Art History & Design Associate Professor of Art Elizabeth Ingraham is teaching an online course this fall titled Computational Creativity that aims to help students develop both creative and computational thinking skills to help with problem solving in any discipline.

“We know there are a number of schools who are offering a course in computational thinking that sometimes is accompanied by some coding, but many times is not,” Ingraham said. “But as far as I know, there’s no school combining that with creative thinking, so we are really excited about the possibilities for this course.”

In the course, students will develop both creative thinking (flexible, imaginative, divergent thinking) and computational thinking (logical, methodical thinking) to make problem solving richer and more powerful, as well as develop collaborative and process skills such as communication, persistence and play to work more successfully.

“What drives everything is our fervent belief that these are two fundamental thinking skills anyone should be eager to learn and use,” Ingraham said. “They can be practiced and developed, and they will improve your learning in any discipline, not just computer science.”

Ingraham is part of a interdisciplinary faculty team, led by Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Leen-Kiat Soh, who is the principal investigator on a nearly $900,000 National Sciences Foundation grant that is looking at ways to deploy these exercises in a more comprehensive study of integrating computational thinking and creative thinking.

The team also includes Glenn Korff School of Music Professor of Music Education Brian Moore, the Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of English Stephen Ramsay; and Research Professor Duane Shell from the Educational Psychology Department.

It’s the third grant Soh has received that is related to computer science education research. His previous NSF grants focused on helping make computer science more accessible to majors and non-majors, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) areas; and a grant focused on integrating computational thinking and creative thinking to improve how students learn in computer science, which is when Ingraham joined the team.

“With this third grant we are looking at different ways of deploying these creative exercises and more comprehensive studies,” Soh said. “We are looking at far more students in the classes, including undergraduates, graduates and non-majors. And with Liz’s class we now have a self-contained, stand-alone online course that wraps around the idea of this computational creativity so we have another way of deploying these exercises and seeing how effective this new approach can be in terms of improving student learning performance.”

Soh said that in the beginning his emphasis was on helping computer science students become more creative.

“At first we were looking at it from the perspective of computer science. We want our students to be able to think outside the box,” he said. “Our students, sometimes, like others in STEM areas, are too rigid, too structured. They follow the rules, they follow the formula, they follow the equation. So we learned to cultivate this creative thinking early instead of waiting until they get to their capstone course at the end.”

Later, he said, they realized that art students, humanities students and non-STEM students could also benefit from computational thinking to guide their creative process and make it more structured.

“Whether we know it or not, we practice computational and creative thinking everywhere we go,” Soh said. “Now our assumption is that based on the growth mindset—these skills are not something fixed. These are skills that we are capable of improving if we are aware of what they are. In a way, whereas creative thinking helps students practice computational thinking more effectively, computational thinking helps students practice creative thinking more efficiently.”

Ingraham has been teaching creative thinking at Nebraska since 2007. A year and a half ago, she taught a prototype, stand-alone, face-to-face course to integrate creative thinking and computational thinking as an honors seminar.

“It went pretty well, and students thought it was interesting,” she said. “It gave me the motivation to design a permanent course.”

The team decided to offer this course online.

“The idea behind the course is that we can have these creative thinking exercises, and they’re not just something that is an add-on to the curriculum. The curriculum is really built around them, and let’s see if students benefit,” Ingraham said.

Some of the creative exercises Ingraham’s online class will complete this semester includes a group of students being sent to a location on campus and having to take an inventory of what they see.

“They have to take a count—people, plants, animals, and even things like smells and sounds,” Ingraham said. “And then to extend that project they have to photograph those examples.”

A second exercise involves a thought experience experiment.

“An alien health machine is delivered to the boardroom of a large, public hospital,” Ingraham said. “And the health machine supposedly will kill any disease, but it can only be used once every 24 hours by pushing a button. So first they have to decide how they’re going to test the machine, and then they have to decide if they’re going to use it. So it gets into both black-box testing and into values and conflicts in value systems, and how do you work in groups and try to resolve these conflicts? How do you have creative diversity without interpersonal abrasion?”

The final project in the course is called “Designing the future.” In it, students will go through a series of exercises and reflections where they identify something in the world that is a problem they want to address, and they will design a tool for it.

“The tool could be anything from a water desalinization system to a literal toolbelt or an app,” Ingraham said. “So it could be big, it could be little, it could be personal, it could be global, it could be anything. They don’t have to actually build or make it, but they have to go through all the steps of describing what it’s for and who its users are and what technology they need. I know that they’re going to find that fun.”

Ingraham has capped enrollment in this fall’s course at 43 students, and it is approved as an ACE 7 Arts course, as part of the university’s Achievement-Centered Education general education program.

“We got a permanent course approved last year as an Ace 7 arts course in order to attract a really diverse group of students, which we’ve done,” Ingraham said.

Ingraham is convinced that they will benefit from the course.

“I am totally convinced that is going to help any student become a better thinker,” she said. “Because computational thinking will help your problem solving be more effective and efficient, and creative thinking will help your problem solving be richer and more powerful.”

 Ingraham believes that will benefit students of all majors and disciplines.

“It’s going to give students some really basic thinking and problem-solving skills and that, I think, is a huge advantage because the world we live in needs flexible, imaginative thinkers,” she said.

In the real world, students will work frequently in teams that are interdisciplinary.

“We are expected to do more with less, as it seems like resources keep shrinking,” she said. “And yet expectations are expanding, and it’s just assumed you’ll innovate, so that’s what our students need to be equipped for. They need to be equipped for what we don’t know is coming.”

Ingraham hopes students build an awareness that they can approach problems using these various thinking skills.

“There’s a book by Twyla Tharp, who is a choreographer, called ‘The Creative Habit,’ and her approach is similar to ours because she says creativity is a habit and that you are creative by practicing certain skills every day,” she said. “So I want these students to have this creative/computational/collaborative habit that they carry with them in how they go forward. They’ll realize they have some strategies to get an idea and to actually develop their ideas.”

The research, thus far, suggests the creative thinking will help students.

“According to our research, if students do the creative thinking exercises, they become smarter,” Ingraham said. “They score better on a knowledge test in computer science, and they score higher on a creativity test. And they also display some attributes that are associated with academic success. What we found, which was super interesting, was there was a dosage effect. So the more of these exercises they completed, the better they did.”

Ingraham is grateful to be part of this interdisciplinary research team.

“It seems to me one of the reasons that we are here at a Research I institution is to engage in interdisciplinary research with our colleagues,” Ingraham said. “And I’m just so grateful I’ve had the opportunity to do that because it made me a better teacher, and it’s made me a better artist. It’s so important for my School to do that because it makes art making visible and shows its worth and intellectual value.”