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Carroll Connection

Saving the World, One Prototype at a Time

by william bole

After lecturing on the subject of “rapid prototyping,” Spencer Harrison (Management and Organization Department) calls his nearly 70 first-year students into groups to do some complex problem solving. The class, co-taught by Harrison and Theatre Department Chair Crystal Tiala, is bracingly titled “Can Creativity Save the World?” Inside the first-floor Stokes Hall lecture room, several students in one group are trying to help solve the problem of storm water runoff. They’ve hatched an idea for a brick fountain that would serve the purpose of rain barrels without the unsightliness that can repel homeowners.

Lecture on “rapid prototyping,” Spencer Harrison (Management and Organization Department)

Listening in on that group, Harrison asks, “Who are the people you should be talking to?” Professor and students talk about fountain designers, plumbing suppliers, and various others who try to control storm water runoff (which can, among other challenges, wash pollutants off lawns and carry them into sources of drinking water). “You could get insights from them to make your innovation better,” Harrison explains.

Welcome to this experiment in interdisciplinary learning—part of a broader three-year experiment aimed at reshaping Boston College’s core curriculum. The University began piloting new core courses in the fall of 2015, and the class taught by Tiala and Harrison, subtitled “A Process for Solving Complex Problems,” is the first one offered in part by the Carroll School of Management.


Renewing the Core

Formal discussion of the “core renewal,” as it is called, began in the fall of 2012. At the time, now University Provost David Quigley (then dean of Arts and Sciences), Carroll School of Management Dean Andy Boynton, and Institute for the Liberal Arts Director Mary Crane spearheaded a yearlong series of campus discussions on the future of the core at Boston College. They did so, uncommonly, with assistance from a global design and innovation consultancy, Continuum, headquartered in Boston’s Seaport District.

The company is best known for developing consumer products (most famously, the Swiffer mop and the Reebok Pump athletic shoe), but its teams spend much of their time helping institutions to choreograph the conversations and shape the processes that will lead to innovation. From such discussions at Boston College came the dual framework of interdisciplinary, collaboratively taught courses offered under the headings of “Complex Problems” and “Enduring Questions.”

Spencer Harrison

During this academic year, “Can Creativity Save the World?” is one of five six-credit courses addressing Complex Problems. Each of these is team-taught by professors from different disciplines, and includes the three-times-a-week lectures, small-group lab sessions for project work, and weekly one-hour evening sessions that promote reflection and further learning. Among other Complex Problems courses are “Social Problems on the Silver Screen” (History and Fine Arts) and “A Perfect Moral Storm: The Science and Ethics of Climate Change” (Philosophy and Earth and Environmental Sciences).

There are also 11 pairs of linked courses dedicated to Enduring Questions. These are smaller, seminar-style classes in which faculty members teach separate courses with overlying topics to a shared group of students. One example of this pairing in the spring will be “What is the Good Life?: Tolstoy to Chekhov” (Slavic and Eastern Languages and Literatures) and “God and the Good Life” (Theology).


Scripting, Storyboarding, and Prototyping

This past semester, the creativity class included a mix of management and arts and sciences students along with a handful from the nursing and education schools. The class has introduced to brand-new college students a range of topics that crisscross boundaries between management and the fine arts. These include scripting, which is useful not only if you’re launching a film project but also for presentations to clients; and storyboarding, which involves graphic illustrations used not only to sequence events in a dramatic production but also for developing products and services.

Boston College Students Story Boarding

Referring to overlaps between management and theater, Harrison points out that creativity requires drawing from a diverse array of sources and insights. “So it doesn’t feel odd to pull ideas from different bodies of knowledge,” he says. From her fine arts perspective, Tiala agrees, noting that when she hears about innovative business practices, “It doesn’t feel foreign to me at all.”

The two professors take turns lecturing, and on October 26, it was Harrison’s role to explain the art of prototyping. He did so in part by showing a video produced by Google that highlights the virtue of “putting your ideas in front of people as soon as possible,” in tangible form. That’s “rapid prototyping,” and at least initially it’s best done in a low-tech way, with paper and pen or pencil, according to the Google video. (Yes, when it comes to quickly generating ideas, Google design teams often prefer paper over digital prototypes.)

Afterward, Harrison told the students that prototyping “creates momentum to get you going.” He added, “Prototypes are boundary objects. They make it possible for people to have a dialogue about the same thing rather than talking past each other.”

On the evening of November 1, a dozen student teams delivered five-minute presentations on a social enterprise they were each creating, in front of the class and a panel of three “judges” or outside experts. Part of the purpose of the course is to explore links not only between management and the arts but also between those disciplines and social consciousness.


Haircuts for the Homeless and Smoothie Trucks

One group of students unveiled an idea for a service that would match beauticians in training with homeless people who could use help with grooming so they could go on job interviews and otherwise make a good appearance. The name given to the enterprise was “Head Start,” and the team came armed with PowerPoints and statistics including that there’s one beautician for every 19 homeless people in Boston and that beauticians need to log 65 hours of practice time before they’re licensed.

Crystal Tiala

Referring to the possible impact on Boston’s homeless, one young woman pointed out: “It brings back a sense of humanity and empowerment.” She said a few area shelters including Boston’s Pine Street Inn had already expressed interest in the idea.

Another group limned an idea for smoothie trucks that would sell highly nutritious versions of the thick beverage at a healthy profit in Boston’s affluent North End—and offer them for free in low-income areas such as Mattapan and Roxbury. “Smoothies are easy to digest,” said a young man, pointing out that the poor and homeless are far more likely than others to suffer from digestion problems due to unhealthy diets.

The three judges—a CEO of a tech company, another CEO of a design firm, and a Carroll School doctoral student focusing on creativity—sat in the front row. They pressed the students on such matters as financing and sustainability. For example, in response to a team that proposed solar-powered plastic screens aimed at helping to promote literacy in Sub-Saharan Africa, one panelist asked, “Would people sell or barter them away?” Students, citing a hunger for education among impoverished Africans, voiced confidence that recipients would find it more valuable to keep rather than sell the devices.


Stressful—and Successful

This assignment was just one of four major projects undertaken by the freshmen, starting with a public service announcement, or PSA, created and acted out by each team.

Several students interviewed used the word “stressful” to describe how the creative process, especially at high speed, felt at first. But Madison Choo, a management student from Dayton, Ohio, said it became “a tad easier” as she and her team realized that they didn’t need to get everything “right” from the start. One idea behind the class is that the best creative approaches involve stepping back and exploring problems (rapidly) before attempting to solve them.

“It’s exciting, intense, stressful. How do you solve a world problem in 30 minutes? It’s kind of crazy,” Carroll School student David Keene, a Floridian, said with a chuckle. “But the process is drilled into my head at this point. And it works.”


William Bole is senior writer and editor at the Carroll School.

Photography by Gary Gilbert.