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USM Faculty Team Wins National Grant to Teach Creative Thinking to STEM Undergrads

PORTLAND, Maine – A University of Southern Maine (USM) art professor and his academic team have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to take creative-thinking processes from the art studio into undergraduate science and technology classrooms.

Raphael DiLuzio, USM associate professor of digital art and design, and his colleagues plan to research and develop teaching modules for creative thinking to be introduced to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educators at the university.

The goal, said DiLuzio, is to evaluate the effects on STEM faculty and undergraduates, with the potential for teaching and reinforcing the creative-process across the curriculum at universities, much like writing is taught across disciplines.

“I’d like to teach people and help them understand that creativity is not just under the purview and ownership of artists alone, that we’re all creative,” DiLuzio said during a recent interview. “It’s about awakening the understanding of the process and getting people to be free to engage wholly in their own creativity, regardless of their training and background.”

“This is the perfect, and much needed, example of how the humanities can work together with the sciences to enhance and improve the academic experience,” said Dean Lynn Kuzma of USM’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (CAHS). “We are very pleased that the National Science Foundation has seen the value of this collaboration to support and fund it. The results could have a profound influence on STEM education across Maine and the U.S.”

DiLuzio, who is principal investigator, and his academic team have been awarded a grant for $192,226 for two and a half years through the NSF’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (TUES) program.

Joining him as co-principal investigators are: Jan Piribeck, USM professor of digital art and foundations; Kelly Hrenko, USM assistant professor of art education, both from CAHS; Carl Blue, USM associate professor of technology; and Clare Congdon, USM associate professor of computer science, both from the USM School of Engineering and Physical Sciences.

The teaching of creative-thinking techniques is not common in college and university undergraduate curricula, DiLuzio explained. The techniques are taught primarily in fine arts and design courses and in some areas of the humanities, such as creative writing.

“This project is expanding the understanding of creative thinking as a dimension of undergraduate coursework in STEM,” the professor said. “If successful, I would like to see this filter down to K-12 classrooms and not be just for college students – I think this is crucial.”

The team will work with one cohort of faculty members from several of USM’s science and technology departments during a summer institute in which creative-thinking, strategies and processes will be examined and put into practice in STEM education. The faculty members are expected to design new teaching modules based on the techniques for incorporation into their current curricula for two academic years. 

“Developing modules for teachers that enhance students’ abilities to be better creative thinkers and doers allows them to be greater innovators and more effective in their own disciplines,” DiLuzio said, adding that he hoped to expose as many USM students as possible to the creative-thinking processes and strategies during the 30-month project period.

DiLuzio also is director of USM’s CI2 (Collaboration for Creative Intelligence and Innovation) Special Research Studio, an innovative and experimental place that brings together faculty and students from different disciplines to explore creative-problem solving. The art professor said he first began thinking about creativity training in the mid-1990s when he met Murray Gell-Mann, a physicist who received the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics. Diluzio’s interest was further sparked about five years ago after a car accident that temporarily impaired his ability to speak and draw.

“When my ability to draw was compromised, I thought I was no longer an artist, no longer creative,” DiLuzio said. “Then I began to make art in completely different ways working with new mediums and in new contexts.” It was then that he realized he still was a creative person, the professor said.

Creativity, DiLuzio asserted, is not a “habit of mind,” but a specific, discreet intelligence that can be taught and developed through certain processes, some of which were first defined by the philosopher Plato and similar to the steps involved in scientific investigation.

Some of the processes to be included in the STEM modules are: learning how to frame a question; examining how research relates to creativity; using detachment, distraction and disengagement to foster creativity; how to use and accept failure as part of the creative process; and “how to capture the ‘ah-has’, the sudden flashes of insight,” the professor said.

Participating faculty members will be given a number of projects and challenges during the workshops, DiLuzio said. Student creativity will be evaluated before and after the implementation of the new learning modules in USM classrooms through standardized testing, he said. 

The project already is under way with the investigators developing a strategic plan for the project, DiLuzio said.