Nurturing Creativity at NYU Shanghai

"Now, more than ever, creativity plays a critical role in education", says Professor Adam Brandenburger, Director of the Program on Creativity + Innovation (PCI) at NYU Shanghai.  “Changes in social, economic, and political structures are apparent across the world. In particular, we are seeing striking changes to structures that had been assumed to be all-enduring.  In this context, learning only a static set of assumptions constitutes a far-from-adequate education.”

NYU Shanghai has been charged with designing a comprehensive new curriculum that prepares students to work in creative partnership with amazingly powerful machines. "In this new era, successful entrepreneurs know how to generate new ideas that improve the quality of human life," says Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman. "That understanding is something that we can develop in our students, and PCI does exactly that."

So how does the University teach and nurture creativity?

“You might say that we don't have to teach creativity at NYU Shanghai at all!” says Brandenburger. “The place itself is designed to foster creativity by bringing together and connecting students and faculty from many countries, in one great location, Shanghai, working in close coordination with our fellow students and faculty in other great locations, New York and Abu Dhabi.”

Indeed, creativity at NYU Shanghai is very consciously considered, and extends beyond setting up incubators and supporting startups.  

“Universities like ours offer opportunities that students won’t have access to after they graduate,” observes Vice-Chancellor Lehman. “Our professors are expert researchers and expert teachers. They know what today’s cutting-edge research reveals about how creative insights happen, what individuals do to prepare themselves for insight, and what organizations do to release their members’ creative potentials. Our professors also understand how best to help students transform the insights from that research into effective skills that they can deploy in their own lives."

“At NYU Shanghai, we are taking a very clear stance,” says Brandenburger. “For us, our students are our startups.  We want to support their development as creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial individuals, whether they go on to establish a commercial startup, work in an existing organization, go to graduate school --- or do something completely different from any of these.  We are teaching across the full spectrum of creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship.  We want our students to learn, reflect, and think about the long term.  You could say that we are investing in our students for the long run.  This is a very conscious choice on our part.

In a new course, Creativity Considered, taught jointly by Vice Chancellor Lehman and Professor Brandenburger, students must develop analyses in search for creativity’s common features by examining case studies of creators of important works of art, scientific theories, music, technologies, and literature.

“The course challenges the common narrative of the creator as the self-assured, initially misunderstood, ultimately triumphant, lone hero figure (very often male). It aims to help students discover something about the multiple realities of creativity --- and help each learn something new about the nature of their particular creative self,” says Brandenburger.



When it comes to creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, the course is only one instance of the philosophy of NYU Shanghai in action.

“Creativity is now a measure of greatness,” says Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen. “If we can help students bring seemingly disparate elements together in new ways, we’ll be helping them to develop an important skill for today’s world.”

Students can currently take courses that help them explore connections between society, technology and innovation, such as Innovation-Shenzhen Style, Design Thinking, and The Design Sprint: Modern Aging and the Future of Health in China.

For the latter course,  students visited local nursing homes and experienced senility through empathy-inducing equipment that blurred their vision and dulled their senses, to gain a first hand perspective of old age.

Using research and design sprint methodology developed at Google Ventures, they then created a user-friendly prototype App “Health Front,” designed to connect Shanghai’s growing elderly population -- many of whom lack connection to healthcare services -- to local activities and health services. The App also serves as an alarm, with an emergency button to alert the nearest emergency room if the user has a fall or is unwell.

NYU Shanghai creativity is also on display in the sciences. Inspired by her longtime concern over drunk driving, computer science major Chelsea Polanco recently led a team of students in creating a pseudo alcohol-sensing device that could prevent drunk drivers from taking the wheel.  Polanco proposed attaching a sensor to car keys that would test a driver’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) through sweat. The team took home first place for the concept at a hackathon for American telecommunications equipment company, Qualcomm in January.

Polanco, who is planning to pursue a career in software engineering after graduation, intends to continue developing the device into an effective and practical product.

Beyond the classroom, talks and events on topics as varied as the art of eating meets the science of taste; branding design, illustration and typography in a multicultural world; and choreography meets virtual reality, help increase the dimensionality of the students' educational journeys.

“A lot of people put the act of combining things at the heart of creativity,” says Brandenburger. “Actually, it is first having sufficiently varied experiences and then combining what you have experienced in an interesting way. Steve Jobs put it very well once, when he said that creators are people who are ‘able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things.’”

At NYU Shanghai students don’t only get to develop their knowledge and experiences, they also learn how to connect them in new ways to come up with new ideas and with fresh solutions to old problems.

“The world needs new knowledge urgently,” reflects Brandenburger.  “Climate change surely poses the biggest challenge of our time.  The economic dislocations of globalization sit high on the list of big challenges we face.  There are also new opportunities, such as those offered by the emergence of a new global middle class of several hundred million people, with their attendant needs and desires. ”

“New knowledge is needed to address these challenges and opportunities. Helping students learn how to create their own new knowledge and meanings can help students throughout their lives.”

By Charlotte San Juan and Susan Salter Reynolds

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