On a Wednesday afternoon in Design Lab 1 at the Duderstadt Center, students craft sculptures from balls of flexible wire, a scene reminiscent of kids at play.

The prompt is to “create something that would be found in water.” Some work alone, clipping and cutting away with needle-nose pliers as they mold their copper crafts. Others gather in groups to discuss the concepts for their final projects, which include subjects such as weightlessness and rhythm. How they structure these projects is completely up to them: They could perform an original dance, make a painting or sing a song. As the title of UARTS 250, “Creative Process,” suggests, the end-goal is not what matters. It’s the steps in between that count.

A student approaches Stephen Rush, a professor in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance and the coordinator for the course, and asks to be given a project. Rush extends a plastic bag filled to the brim with pieces of paper, each one bearing a potential topic. The student chooses a scrap and reads aloud: “crystalline.” After seeing the confused look on the student’s face, Rush laughs and explains to him just how awesome that topic is: The possibilities are endless.

Now in its fourth year, the interdisciplinary course was initiated when Theresa Reid, executive director of the University’s ArtsEngine program, contacted Rush and asked him to gather together a group of interesting people for an experimental class.

After receiving $300,000 from the Multidisciplinary Learning and Team Teaching grant through the Office of the Provost, Rush’s next task was to manipulate the teaching schedules of professors from four different departments: architecture, engineering, dance and Art & Design.

During the first half of the semester, students rotate among two-week workshops pertaining to the four areas of study. While one-fourth of the class dives into the world of visual image in the Duderstadt, another group is across the street in the architecture lab. Studying abstract architects such as Gaudi and Gehry, these students use X-Acto knives to shape pieces of cardboard, testing out the basics of light, form, shape and space. In one project, the cardboard has been fashioned to form a two-foot-tall open-air tunnel, with tiny windows allowing light to fill the structure.

Though two weeks may not be enough time to develop a strong grasp of one discipline, Rush explained that it is enough time to deeply affect the way a student views a concept.

“Two weeks isn’t enough time to see the Grand Canyon either,” Rush said. “But do you not go? You see this transformation over the course of these four two-week sessions. It’s stunning.

He added: “These guys end up learning to talk about things they don’t know about in an inquisitive, honoring kind of way.”

In the second half of the course, students devote time to their final projects, using each other and the professors as sounding boards for ideas. Students also keep a journal in which they record thoughts and observations for each week. While the journal is a big part of their final grade, the aim is simply to get them thinking.

Additionally, each department has a mini-project for students to complete. Projects vary from the ephemeral (a two-to-three-minute movement piece) to the concrete; the engineering section has students use electric Legos to create a machine of their own. As Rush explained, students in this section have produced paint machines, banana peelers and electric catapults (based on designs by Leonardo da Vinci).

Optional meditation sessions are held on Mondays, and Rush gives a lecture to the entire class every Wednesday. Lectures cover influential creative thinkers from history, such as Meister Eckhart, a German philosopher, and Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism.

As Rush makes the rounds from one classroom to the next and greets students from each separate cohort, he describes the class with a combination of idealism and serious fortitude. He unabashedly states that the class’s aim is nothing less than social transformation. By bringing people together from distinct parts of the University and studying a curriculum as diverse and broad as creativity itself, Rush believes this type of course can foster an acceptance that can have a profound impact on the world at large.

“This is when the Gaza Strip gets solved,” he said. “This is when the Berlin Wall goes down, is when people can cut through the walls of differentiation and pull people together. Now, you can have 100,000 classes on diversity training that try to do exactly the same process, but the fact is we’re actually doing it, but we never even talk about it.”

Outside of a room in the basement of Bursley Residence Hall — which functions as the meditation room, lecture hall and movement classroom — Rush watches the movement class currently in session. He marvels at the way students who have never danced before they started the course allow themselves to take chances, to fall down, to risk failure and to help each other out.

“We talk about (failure) a lot in this class,” Rush said. “Nothing turns out the way you think it’s going to turn out … things surprise you. And the thing is to delight in what’s happening in the process and not get all mad at it, and go ‘oh, you bad thing that I’m creating.’ ”

He added: “Fear is always the enemy of creativity.”

A crowd of students begins to gather for the lecture, and Rush speaks with them as one would to a friend, as equals. Despite the class’s large size, students and teachers get to know one another on a personal basis, which Rush maintains is an important draw for students.

“All the professors are going to learn your name. They’re going to know what you’re about, what your final prompt is, so it’s a kind of ecosystem where you’re valued,” he said. “And, look, that’s where you want to hang, right? You want to hang with people that know who you are and what you’re about.”

The students and Rush file into the makeshift lecture hall where tables, couches, pool tables and floor space are all used as spots for note-taking. The scene could easily be mistaken for dorm residents relaxing in the student lounge, except that at the front of the room, Rush begins to lecture on Buckminster Fuller and the invention of the geodesic dome.

Tingshen Chen, a sophomore in the School of Engineering, hangs back to speak about his thoughts on “Creative Process.”

For Chen, the class is more a journey of self-discovery than it is a way to literally create things.

“Other departments teach you how you can think outside the box and how you can be creative,” he said. “But this (class) is more about being a human and being yourself. It’s like living life to the fullest can help you come to these great thoughts.”

Chen takes a seat in the class next to his peers. Amy Chavasse, an associate professor of Dance and the instructor for the movement section, exits the classroom upon finishing teaching for the day. She too places emphasis on the value of interdisciplinary classes. Yet she acknowledges that there will always be tension between those who value the pure technique and those who desire to understand a broad spectrum of ideas.

But the opportunity to share her area of expertise in a forum devoted to pushing boundaries of what is possible, emotionally and physically, outweighs any tension that might arise.

“In this class I just had, there were a couple of Ph.D. engineering people in there, and they’re like flying all over, flinging themselves all over the room, just being totally uninhibited … it’s really amazing,” said Cavasse. “(This class) is an opportunity to be playful in the most serious way that play can be.”

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