Professor Richard Chambers has no doubt that creativity can be taught, yet he spent two years in research and development for the creative innovation course that he’s piloting this semester with 30 business students.

It’s not as though Chambers doesn’t have long experience teaching courses with a creative context, but his academic home is in the Theatre Department, and his foray into the business universe is part of a curricular collaboration between the College of Arts & Sciences and the Sawyer Business School, which developed the creativity learning goals through the Shared General Education Committee.

“The little creativity fairy doesn’t wave her wand at the chosen few,” said Chambers. “I think we’re born creative, but sometimes we kill it. We’re tapping back into that native creativity.”

Fahad AkhtarYet some were skeptical, including students.

Freshman Fahad Akhtar said he initially hated the idea of a business class taught by a theater professor, but as the semester neared its end, Chambers’ Process and Epiphany: The Structure of Creative Innovation class had become the business student’s favorite.

“When I walked into this huge drama room, I asked myself: What did I sign up for? I’m not going to be good at this,” said Akhtar.

But Akhtar said that he really started to get into the assignments about a month after classes began. He recalled being given a candle and a full matchbox with instructions to find a way to attach a lit candle to the wall. Solving the problem made him realize that Chambers “was teaching us that everything could be done better. That’s what business is: finding a better way.”

Preparing for learning and workplace success

“We believe it is essential for all graduates to have flexible thinking, to explore ideas and recognize opportunities, to recognize that failure is part of a learning process that provides both resilience and deeper understanding of a situation, often leading to better solutions,” said Sawyer Business School Associate Dean Laurie L. Levesque. “The hope was that all first-year students would choose whichever course sparked their passion, regardless of which College or Business department offered it.”

Han Nguyen“It has been exciting to see courses emerge from different disciplines to meet the same learning goals,” said Levesque.

Professor Marilyn Plotkins, chair of the Theatre Department, noted that Suffolk is “capitalizing on a movement in higher education where collaboration and creative thinking are being taught--not to seniors, but to freshmen.”

“The more I read about what employers are looking for, I see that they want people who know how to collaborate, people who aren’t afraid to take risks, people who make things happen,” said Plotkins. “The skills we’re teaching through the creativity and innovation classes will serve these students well as they go through college, but they also will prove invaluable in the workplace after graduation.”

Building the courage to take risks

Chambers’ class is very hands-on. It begins with a brain teaser warm-up that is intentionally difficult to force the students into deep thinking. Each student is equipped with a toolbox of office supplies and other materials, and modeling clay is a common tool.

Usama Massod“I’m a great believer in making things,” said Chambers. “When you’re working with an object, making something, it gives you immediate feedback: This won’t fit. This isn’t what I wanted, but it looks cool.”

The students collaborate in groups, and Chambers works at getting them to open up, brainstorm, and embrace one another’s ideas.

The student groups present their work to the class and have to learn to accept and give positive criticism.

“How do you give a comment that suggests improvement without sounding like a complaint or criticism?” said Chambers, noting that athletes, artists, and actors are used to that, but some of these students might not otherwise have that experience until they begin their business careers.

“Risk and failure are a huge part of what we do,” he said.

Chambers has outlined a multi-step creative process for the class and assignments, modeled on the scientific method.

“It’s applied to many different projects, so the students see that it is a process,” he said.

Melding nature and technology

Akhtar’s favorite project involved taking an idea from nature and applying it to a device.

“At first I said: What is he talking about?” But Akhtar’s group developed a solar tree, and he was delighted with the results.

“The tree’s leaves are solar panels; it attracts light from the sun,” he said.

Chambers said that the group initially drew the solar tree with cords as “vines” hanging down to charge phones and other devices. “It looked kind of messy.”

Through discussion the class led the creators to the concept of sap running through a trunk, and the solar tree idea evolved to include cords enclosed within the trunk and retractable usb ports.

“You could set it up in a school or at a mall so people could charge their phones,” said Akhtar. “It’s a really cool idea.”

Learning to be playful

Chambers doesn’t lecture to these students. “I describe the assignment, and they’re off and running. I’m more of a facilitator going around to groups, cajoling, questioning. And I emphasize empathy, the ability to listen.”

He said that teaching creativity is becoming a necessity as society evolves. Children don’t have as much free-play time as did previous generations, and it shows.

“We think of them as computer savvy, but they’re not necessarily getting this sort of creative experience outside of the classroom,” he said.

Chambers finds the pilot class exhausting and exhilarating, and he is fine-tuning the course as it goes along.

“They need to see me as engaging in the same exercise as they are – even if that means changing the syllabus or adjusting strategy midstream,” he said.

Akhtar’s future in business lies with his family’s chain of convenience stores. In this, as in other areas of commerce, “to be successful, you have to be an innovator who does something different.” Akhtar said Chambers has given him a good foundation.

“I’m glad I came to Suffolk; I don’t think many schools are doing anything like this,” he said.

 Nicholas Albanese, Han Nguyen, Jonessa Guarino, Worth Walrod


Fahad Akhtar

Han Nguyen

Usama Massod

Nicholas Albanese, Han Nguyen, Jonessa Guarino, and Worth Walrod work on a Rube Goldberg-type invention.