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From Status Quo Keepers to Problem-Solvers

News Nov. 25, 2019

Imagine giving 25 high-achieving college students each a lump of Playdough and asking them to create the most beautiful tree possible. Then, visualize what might happen next. They go to work, but eventually, they begin looking around at their neighbor’s trees. And they panic. Do their trees look better? How is “beautiful” even defined? By what criteria will I be graded? What if I fail? Or worse, I’m embarrassed?

This scenario plays out each fall semester in Cornerstone University’s Creativity and Innovation Honors Institute (CIHI). It might sound like a simple exercise, but it’s packed full of meaning and learning possibilities.

Becoming Problem Solvers

By participating in exercises like this, Don Perini, director of CIHI, says students begin to change the way they think. “We’re actually helping them rewire their brains to think differently,” he says, referring to the concept of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to change continuously throughout an individual’s life.

Exercises like this are designed to help students cope with self-doubt and fear of failure and discover their worth and significance isn’t based solely on results. It’s part of a process called design thinking, which emphasizes the process—by revisiting and revising mistakes—not the product itself.

“By asking students to create their trees, look at any mistakes, mess it up and do it over again, they’re learning it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time,” says Perini. “They’re learning to innovate by making iterations, and they’re learning that failures don’t determine whether or not you succeed in the end. It’s a different way of thinking.”

This new way of thinking, he says, is key to becoming a creative problem solver, a skill that’s one of the most sought-after traits by employers and business leaders today. According to a survey conducted on behalf of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, 95% of employers prioritize innovation among their hiring preferences. Perini says his own conversations with local and regional businesses confirm their desire for graduates with creative problem-solving capacities.

A New Way of Educating

CIHI, which began fall 2018 with two cohorts, is a response to this desire. It’s a unique program, giving high-achieving students an opportunity to receive a classical liberal arts education integrated with content in creativity and innovation. Project-based learning experiences, intentional student cohorts, seminar-style discussions led by expert faculty and the opportunity to earn a second major in creativity and innovation are all elements of the program, which is open to high school seniors with a 3.5 G.P.A. or higher via an application process. Each semester is comprised of two cohorts of 20 to 25 first-year students each. Students choose a major in their area of interest and then also receive a second major in creativity and innovation.

Perini and Dr. Michael Stevens, professor of English and faculty member in the program, explain there are three parts to the program. First, like other honors programs, CIHI emphasizes the great books by engaging ideas at the heart of a liberal arts education and examining foundational texts that have shaped Western thought. Second, students learn to examine issues from an interdisciplinary approach. For example, they not only study refugee and immigration through a political lens but also from psychological, sociological and historical perspectives. Because CIHI is designed to expand thinking and develop critical skills, the third focus is on creativity and innovation, which emphasizes design thinking, creative habits and innovation techniques.

Stevens says, “I enjoy the tension created in this program by combining traditional and non-traditional approaches. It’s good for students to experience this tension in styles and approaches and to find their way through it. It’s all part of learning to face the anxiety and fear that can come with the unknown.”

Life-Changing Results

According to Perini, CIHI is unlike any program in the country, and the results have been impressive. CU recently hired Julia Petersen, assistant professor of creativity and innovation, to help manage the growing student demand in the program, and CIHI is also receiving attention from other institutions and West Michigan businesses interested in learning more about the program.

In addition, current students are reporting high satisfaction. “Being in the CIHI program was the best decision I have made in my college career thus far,” says Madison Marks, a business marketing student. “I have already learned so many tools that I can use in my future career, and I am only in my second year.”

“This degree changes the way I approach life,” says sophomore Joelle Henry from Caledonia, Mich. She says CIHI has helped her not only learn to care for others better but also to better care for herself. She’s learning to process things with a problem-solver mindset and has the tools to come up with new, creative ideas. “This will be helpful as I go into education because I will be able to add creativity into the classroom and help the kids learn better.”

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