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Fill 'er up!

For final project, students find unique ways to display their creativity

By Rick Moore

December 19, 2008

To walk into the atrium of McNeal Hall in St. Paul on the afternoon of December 15 was to be convinced that it couldn't possibly be finals week. There were no little blue essay booklets around, nor was there a single No. 2 pencil in sight. But the students in Brad Hokanson's class were certainly gearing up, getting ready to display their final projects, which were much less about recalling book passages than about tapping their imaginations.

Hokanson's class in the Department of Design, Housing, and Apparel--"Creative Problem Solving"--has creativity at its core. It's a semester-long program of exercising the right side of students' brains and includes weekly assignments to "do something different" in realms such as eating, wearing, and listening.

"People tend to limit themselves with their creativity," says Hokanson, "but I want them to break through those limits and be more flexible to expand their horizons."

The final projects were designed to showcase just what can happen when you take a task and come at it from divergent perspectives. The assignment: to creatively fill, in 15 minutes, the four-story McNeal atrium in any way the students choose.

The first group of students hit the ground running and launched something of an aerial show, as they tried to "fill the atrium with connections." The students armed their classmates with balls of yarn and string, then sent them to all levels of the atrium with instructions to yell a question (such as "Who goes to the University of Minnesota?") and then launch their ball of yarn at the first person who answers--while still holding on to their end of the string.

In a matter of seconds, rainbows of string and yarn were intersecting the vast reaches of the space--the atrium buzzing with questions and filling with connections. "Who likes hockey?" "Who's on the third floor?" "Whose favorite color is orange?"

Creativity captured

Watch a video about Brad Hokanson's "Creative Problem Solving" class.

Then at 1:56 p.m., on schedule, came the command to break the connections and reel in the string, and within minutes the students had cut apart their connective tissue and extricated themselves from the colorful mess.

The next group turned the McNeal atrium into an oversized dry aquarium, with some students showing up as fish, sharks, and divers, and others "feeding the fish" from the floors above.

"This is the class they're going to remember all the way through college and beyond," says Hokanson.

Another group filled the space with the sounds of a loud sing-along version of "Jingle Bells" and the tastes of holiday cookies that were handed out to students and onlookers alike.

As far as final exams go, this one seemed particularly palatable for everyone involved.

Kristin Helle, a teaching assistant for the course, was impressed by the variety of responses to the final assignment and the unbridled creativity. "It was fun to see how the students could take an open-ended assignment and interpret it in so many different ways," she says.

Hokanson was also excited by the extent to which his students went to the creative well to fill up the atrium space, and he figures the project will stick with them for some time. "This is the class they're going to remember all the way through college and beyond," he says.

He adds that the students took chances and tried new things--all under the umbrella excuse of "It's for a class"--even including friends and family members in on the fun.

"They become evangelists for creativity," he says.

Hokanson's class and its final project aren't all about fun and games, though; in fact, he's quick to point out research on creativity and the ramifications of his class.

In one study, for example, subjects who ate breakfast were 11 to 15 percent more creative than their peers who did not. (Note to self: don't skip breakfast.)

Another study shows that for a group that received semester-long training in creative problem solving, three different measures of creativity increased by about 35 percent.

At least one student, sophomore Derek Kazemba, says that the class opened him up to a number of new experiences, and he "learned not to be afraid of failure." He says he was also impressed by everyone's take on the final assignment, which showed that, in this case at least, "There's no right way to do things; there are just many ways to do the same thing." "They have learned the value of being totally zany--that there's a purpose to it," adds Helle. "These are tools they can apply to any field they wind up in."

It was almost enough inspiration for a writer--were he to be all jacked up on a nutritious breakfast--to attempt an article on this event that was full of free verse and unshackled by the restraints of sentence structure, punctuation, and even accuracy.

But alas, some editors aren't as open-minded as Hokanson. And as his students filed back into the McNeal Hall auditorium with their props in tow, and with the cookie dust still settling on the floor of the atrium, another thing became delightfully apparent: some classes definitely have more attractive final exams than others.