Creativity is fueling innovations
in college’s design process class


Rare is the college class that requires students to sign non-disclosure agreements before they can attend its lectures, but that’s the case for anyone enrolling in the Texas A&M University “futures” course taught by Prof. Rodney Hill.

The rationale behind the rare requirement is that the course, “Environmental Design 101: Design Process,” has a track record for producing patentable inventions and related innovative ideas with potential application. From a recent round of 15 team presentations, about 10 were good candidates for patents and commercialization, Hill estimates.

Hill is a professor of architecture, but his “futures” course focuses on, well, the future — how society will look in 2030 and beyond, and what devices and services will be needed then. Hill says two-thirds of the jobs that will be available in 2020 have not yet been invented. Students are also asked to determine whether their domains will exist in 10, 20 or 30 years.

Students sign nondisclosure agreements and attend lectures from the Technology Licensing Office on patents, trademarks and copyright laws. Students create knowledge for individual and group projects, and they must document and conduct patent searches on at least two innovative ideas each week. Numerous projects have placed well in social entrepreneur competitions, and Hill’s students routinely generate and post YouTube videos to further illustrate their ideas.

“Knowledge workers were great for the 20th century, and you can even outsource that,” Hill says. “With this program, we’re making a shift. We are trying to get them to be knowledge thinkers. There are no Scantrons in the 101. All of it is creating knowledge.”

The freshman-level class invariably attracts a slew of upperclassmen — particularly honors students — and the class participants come from a range of majors. Engineering, business and biotech majors typically make up a majority of the class rosters.

The class is so sought-after that it typically fills on the first day of registration and requires a waiting list. Because of the increased demand, a second instructor helps teach it: Jorge Vanegas, dean of the College of Architecture.

“We could offer six or eight sections and fill them all, but I don’t know that we could keep up with that kind of load,” Vanegas says. “This is a lot of fun, but it also requires a lot from all who are involved. You can’t just coast through; you have to be fully engaged.”

Vanegas says the class teaches the students to think, trust their instincts and work in teams.

Hill puts it another way: “This class is designed for students to discover themselves.”

The students are taught relaxation techniques so they can get in “the zone” — the state required for creativity to flow. They first work in teams of six to brainstorm freely about possibilities, then narrow their lists to those ideas with real promise, Hill says.

No other architecture school in the country offers a similar course, and when Hill and Vanegas present talks about the program at various conferences, they are typically the only architects talking about futures programs. That was the case at the International Conference on Thinking last summer in Malaysia, and at the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

“It is sad, because this is what needs to be taught,” Hill says. “To survive this century, one must be trans-disciplinary and able to blend domains.”


- Posted Oct. 6, 2009 -

- the end -


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