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Fostering Creativity: the Importance of 21st Century Skills in Project Based STEAM

Bionic kid being shown the code and taught how his bionic training games are made.

Matt Dombrowski | @dombrowskiucf
September 17,  2020
Perspectives

In 2018 Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen said, “It’s time to reimagine creativity. The future belongs to those who can create.” I’m sure we can all agree that it’s a unique time in education, but I firmly believe that now, more than ever, is the time for us to not only reimagine creativity but redefine creativity in education. Utilizing 21st century skills and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) learning, educators have the unique opportunity to transform the traditional classroom and reimagine creativity through interdisciplinary project based learning. To promote this transformation, educators should create objectives and opportunities to encourage the development of our students’ 21st century skills such as: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, technology literacy, digital citizenship, and flexibility. I’m excited to share my STEAM driven academic journey, as well as provide a small roadmap on how to use project based STEAM learning to foster creativity, build empathy, and better develop 21st century skills with your students.

I am an Associate Professor in the School of Visual Arts and Design (SVAD) at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando, Florida. During my 12 years at UCF, I’ve received the award for UCF undergraduate teacher of the year, as well as the Chuck D. Dziuban Award for Excellence in Online Teaching. My teaching spans across the multidisciplinary fields of animation, graphic design, game development, and emerging media. My pedagogy focuses on designing with empathy while pushing the limits with technological innovation. Innovation requires us to think “not yet,” instead of “that’s impossible,” leading to far-reaching impactful outcomes.

Early in my career I worked in the professional graphics industry focusing on 3-D modeling to computer animation. The commercial industry is primarily focused on deadlines, money, and the seemingly constant revolving door of projects. More times than not, that next creative project would be a completely different creative treatment. I had become accustomed to this world of ever changing projects, and the sometimes ugly consumerism that came with it. Needless to say it was a refreshing change when I made the professional shift to higher education. I was immediately drawn to the rewarding experience of working with passionate young creatives and helping them foster their creative ideas.

Limbitless bionic kid shaking hands with the UCF SVAD undergraduate student who painted her bionic sleeve.
Limbitless bionic kid shaking hands with the UCF SVAD undergraduate student who painted her bionic sleeve.

In 2014 I was approached by Limbitless Solutions, a relatively new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and direct support organization (DSO) of UCF. Their mission is to empower confidence and increase accessibility in the limb difference community through art-infused bionics at no cost to our “bionic kids” (our nickname we give to those who receive our prosthetics) and their families. They just recently went viral with a video of Robert Downey Jr. gifting an Ironman themed bionic arm to one of their children with limb difference. I was approached by Limbitless to assist in the visual development of the bionic limbs, in addition to developing training for the children to learn to use their prosthesis. After a year of research and development, my research colleagues and I created an electromyographic (EMG) flex game controller and training video games that teach children with limb difference to hone their muscle strength and perform various gestures with their newly gifted bionic limbs.

Our bionic kids instantly fell in love with our inclusive gaming experience. One of our bionic champions was a young boy named Zachary. Zachary was by far the biggest fan of our training games. Zachary especially took a liking to our game Bash Bro, a rampage style game that you play as a large, hulk-like character (Bash) smashing aliens, aptly named the “galackdorks” by our bionic kids. I will never forget the event where Zachary lit up when he first played our training games; games that were created just for him. My research colleagues and I left that event with a new focus on expanding interdisciplinary project based learning and STEAM collaboration to better serve bionic kids like Zachary. We had experienced, what we now refer to as, our “Limbitless moment”. All the past years of consumerism and the fast paced projects of old seemed insignificant compared to the fulfillment of designing for the greater good in mind. Witnessing first hand, creativity’s power to inspire and empower left us humbled and motivated. We left that event determined to evolve our teaching practice, creative approaches. We began to brainstorm ways to infuse this highly empathic feeling we felt into our curriculum and provide these powerful moments to motivate our undergraduate students.

Fast forward to 2020, and what started as a small group project with a handful of participants is now a full fledged STEAM learning experience for our UCF undergraduate students. We have completed the first clinical trial in the United States for 3D printed bionics for children with the goal of receiving FDA approval for our bionic devices. Our team has built success formed at the intersection of different academic majors, where diverse voices have pushed the team to focus on the tech, heart and experience for our bionic kids. In fact, Limbitless students now represent nine different UCF colleges and we employ around 30 undergraduates each semester. In the past six years we have worked with over 165 undergraduate students and alumni to continue to provide no cost bionic solutions to our families. In addition to myself, Limbitless works with faculty representatives from the UCF Honors College, College of Engineering and Computer Science, College of Sciences, and the College of Arts and Humanities to drive the interdisciplinary collaboration aspect in our mission.

Interdisciplinary STEAM plays an immense role in the success of Limbitless’ learning lab. Our team combines creative thinkers from engineering and art to promote access and engagement in an outside the classroom project based learning experience. Our students’ shared outcome is designing toward a more inclusive future. Expanding accessible mobility solutions for underserved communities is always at the forefront of mission. The first-hand experience of research collaboration between arts and humanities, communications, science and technology is imperative toward our students’ professional and academic development. Believe it or not, academic institutions can often encourage a silo mentality when it comes to interdisciplinary collaboration between departments (Friedman, 2018). For many of our students, the Limbitless Solutions STEAM experience is the first time they have the opportunity to truly work side by side with their peers from other academic units and disciplines.

Our student programs empowers undergraduates to learn quickly through real projects and innovate for positive impact. Accessibility and inclusivity are at the center of each project, beginning with a culture of inclusivity within our undergraduate students. We prioritize an environment where our team members of all backgrounds are able to participate equally, feel valued, and have a sense of belonging, so, ultimately, our bionic kids can feel the same. We built on the idea of the “Limbitless moment” to further connect them with our bionic kids and design with empathy. From day one, our students contribute their innovative ideas to our mission and real world clients by evolving new designs and aesthetics to continue to innovate the bionic designs. This STEAM deep dive ensures student ownership, accountability, and digital citizenship throughout their creative practice and tenure at Limbitless. Additionally students are well prepared with the skills to their various professional industries upon graduation. Partnering with companies like Adobe, Autodesk, 343 Studios, Riot Games, and Stratasys have enabled additional opportunities for growth and external mentorship in our student programs and advanced their quality of the training. The results have been nothing short of inspiring!

A photo of a Limbitless Solutions Bionic Limb with a custom color scheme chosen by the child.

One such success story is UCF Limbitless alumna, Sarah Kelliher ‘19 (B.S in Business Administration in Marketing with a minor in Journalism Studies). As a Limbitless intern, Sarah had the unique experience to speak at the United Nations in New York on gender and disability with one of our bionic kids. An experience that most certainly transcended the classroom. Sarah was offered a full time position a month before graduating as aCommunications Specialist at the top Orlando PR firm Curley & Pynn.

I reached out to Sarah to elaborate on how the Limbitless experience better prepared her for the professional world. Kelliher explained, “For me, Limbitless was the catalyst in a successful transition from student to full-time professional. The environment its team creates for its students is inspiring. The organization thrives on creativity, empathetic communication and collaboration; three skills I consistently apply in my day-to-day work.”

When asked about the traditional classroom experience in comparison to her time at Limbitless Kelliher answered, “Limbitless is untraditional in the best way. Too often, students are told to keep their heads down and listen, but at Limbitless, it’s quite the opposite. Students don’t just have a seat at the table but are encouraged to bring new and bright ideas to the table that have a real impact on Limbitless’ bionic kids and families.”

Creating these empathetic connections between the students and their work drives our innovation and further builds the students 21st century skills. Our students are fueled by our students developing their 21st century skills such as: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, technology literacy, digital citizenship, and flexibility. Our mission, as their academic mentors, is to foster these skills in a project based learning experience. Here is just a small insight into how we approach development of these skills in our lab.

Creativity

Out of all the skill sets we look for in Limbitless interns creativity is at the top of the list. Our students must be open to new ideas but also willing to adapt, evolve and take risks in their creative practice. Failure forward learning is a big part of the creative practice. We provide an emotionally safe space for our students to try new ideas without ridicule. We encourage them to try and fail but more importantly, to continue to evolve until they succeed. It’s hard to forget that creativity is not just a skill for the visual artist, but an essential quality for engineers, computer scientists, and public relation students. In fact, according to a study by Genco (2012) freshman engineering students typically hold more creativity and innovation than those of graduating seniors. Why is this? Is the creativity taught out of them? I believe this decline is not from the fact that professors lack the desire to incorporate creativity into their classroom or teach it out of students, but rather a lack of pedagogical flexibility to explore creative practice. The growth of formula based objectives and standardized mandated material simply allows little time for creative exploration. Allowing just a few minutes a class for creative exploration and practice can really produce impactful outcomes.

I reached out to one of our Limbitless Solutions interns about their take on how Limbitless is implementing these 21st century skills to our student scholars vs the traditional classroom experience. Current Limbitless intern Chase Walker (Computer Scientist, Class of ‘22), replied, “Limbitless is a collaborative environment and the skills and technology cultivates communication and innovation. Though this is a fast-paced and cool environment, you are still able to make important decisions, and be sociable.” He went on to say, “Limbitless aims to cultivate these skills as an intern. There is no expectation for these skills when you come in but the main goal is to teach interns and they focus on these skills. They introduce tech despite the students major. Social skills, communication, and creativity are important  – don’t follow others, do it yourself.”

When asked about typical assessments in the traditional classroom and how 21st century skills are being fostered there, Walker commented that it’s sometimes a mixed experience. He goes on to state, ”Classes don’t always give opportunities to showcase your applied knowledge. I know though that some of them have a whole semester to work on a project with your team. No actual papers, but technology based projects.”

Bionic Kid Zachary’s reaction playing the limb training games for the first time. My Limbitless Moment.
Bionic Kid Zachary’s reaction playing the limb training games for the first time. My Limbitless Moment.

Critical thinking and Communication

Many of my teaching methods are borrowed and adapted from various professional industries. For instance, it was a difficult task to create candor and critical thinking between students of varying disciplines. These students, at times, seem to speak different languages. To resolve this we borrowed the concept of the “braintrust” from Pixar Animation Studios. The braintrust is a group based feedback practice utilized in the filmmaking process for Pixar films. At Limbitless, our “braintrust” are groups of interdisciplinary students with the shared agenda of empowering our bionic kids, who offer candid feedback to each other but still are subject to individual backgrounds, personalities and chemistries.

Creating a team culture that is sustainable, growth oriented, innovative, compassion driven and, most importantly,  student minded is a must for success in a project based STEAM learning experience.

Creating community between your students, regardless of their discipline of study, and creating a common shared goal ignites collaboration. One such way to do this is to integrate Bi-directional STEAM / Multi-directional learning into your classroom. In other words have the art minded individuals tackle the engineering problem while the engineering minded individuals attempt to solve a visual design problem.

Collaboration

As mentioned earlier, the academic system can often create silos between disciplines. Looming credit hour limits and strict pre-reqs make it challenging for students to gain valuable interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities. Educators must continue to fight to break down these self imposed silos. The melding of unique mindsets and combination of mediums is where true innovation occurs. We found this to be challenging even with Limbitless. The art college rarely collaborated with the engineering college though their buildings were mere minutes apart. Collaboration doesn’t happen overnight and it takes patience, persistence, and most importantly, trust to foster these partnerships in academia. At Limbitless, we continually invite our academic colleagues, healthcare professionals, community leaders, and a variety of subject matter experts to our lab. The first step to fostering this cross-silo collaboration is to create opportunities for your colleagues to build genuine connections to your project. Instilling this connection early on provides them with academic ownership and stake in the creative outcome. Giving that creative stake to another faculty member can be difficult at first and requires flexibility and trust. Like all types of relationships trust occurs over time. At Limbitless our hope is to not only share all our unique “Limbitless moments” and past experiences, but also provide opportunities and the flexibility for our potential collaborators to create their own powerful moments.

According to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the Power of Moments (2019), defining moments should elevate, provide insight, instill pride and connection. Creating genuine and powerful moments inside and outside the classroom leads to buy in from not only your students but admin and your community.

How can educators create cross-silo interdisciplinary collaboration opportunities in our traditional classroom? The same methodology above can be applied to project based learning opportunities across our curriculum. A great place to start is to reach out to disciplines that greatly differ from your own. In doing so discuss what skills your students have grasped and what elements of the other disciplines skills your students are currently needing further development in. In my experience with creative teaching I have found that each of the disciplines bring a skill the others need to the “learning table”. In the case of my experience working with engineers, I found their analytical approach really helped provide an alternative view that guided my design thinking to create more tangible outcomes.

Finally, collaboration must occur on multiple levels. There is peer to peer collaboration, teacher to student mentorship and the often overlooked student to teacher mentorship moments. When it comes to leadership in the classroom I’m a firm believer in decentralized command. Decentralized leadership is any process where the decision making is distributed throughout a larger group. This empowers our students and connotes trust, higher accountability and forces student decision making. Allow students to have the opportunity to collaborate and gain confidence and ownership of their learning outcomes.

It’s important not to forget to infuse external mentorship into your classroom as well. Now more than ever, with the use of remote conferencing, we can conference industry experts in your classroom. External mentors are often only a direct message away. Believe it or not most of our industry partnerships have begun through social media platforms such as LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram.

A group of Limbitless interns and affiliated faculty conducting a braintrust session for feedback on a STEAM project.

Technology Literacy and Digital Citizenship

21st century skills require 21st century tools. Implementing various platforms such as Google Chats, and Hangouts, Zoom, Discord, Trello, Pinterest we have developed a community of students that can readily share their innovation to others with extraordinary speed. These tools allow our students to creatively brainstorm and communicate their ideas. In our partnerships with Adobe and Autodesk students receive the tools they need to be digitally literate. But beyond the buttons and cutting edge technology it’s important that we continue to educate the students on the “why”. After all, it’s not about the tool but how you use that tool to create impact and empower. The reinforcement of this mantra allows students to transform into digital citizens and wield technology to foster positive change.

Flexibility

Finally, our last skill we look to develop in our students at Limbitless is flexibility. In fact, as I’m sure many of the K12 educators know reading this, nothing builds flexibility like working with young children. Limbitless interns must learn to be flexible and practice patience when working with our bionic kids. In my experience, I have noticed that students who have taken part in STEAM projects in the K12 classroom are better prepared with the necessary framework of 21st century skills. Limbitless interns who have already experienced STEAM project based learning in K12, typically, are quicker to adapt into our system than those who have not previously received those opportunities. This is why it’s imperative to provide, if even just a baseline, these skills early on to help foster our student’s future professional growth.

During COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed a need for flexibility and adaptation with our students. As many turned to remote learning due to COVID-19, educators were forced to rethink and restructure our classrooms and our students had no choice but to adapt. The STEAM laboratory at Limbitless also has primarily shifted to an online modality. This did not come without challenges. The major difficulty was not being in the learning lab and feeding off the energy of innovation and witnessing those Limbitless moments. But much like our students, we also had to implement our 21st century skills. We found that our digitally literate students were more prepared than ever to take on this unique challenge. We continued to embrace virtual communication technologies to foster virtual engagement and remote learning. Creating genuine and powerful moments was still at the forefront of our students STEAM learning journey.

My journey in the classroom, as well as with Limbitless Solutions has made me a believer that the influences and implementation of interdisciplinary STEAM coupled with technology can be used toward the betterment of our society and to help positively shape its future. Providing opportunities for students of all ages to develop their 21st century skills will help them thrive in both their academic and professional careers. No matter the method of pedagogical delivery, the silos that might face us, and the unique challenges we face ahead of us, educators must always serve as the microphone to our student’s creative voice. After all, our mission as educators is to amplify our students and encourage them to create positive change and cultural impact.


Friedman, H. H. (2018). How the Creation of Too Many Academic Departments Stifles Creativity, Encourages a Silo Mentality, and Increases Administrative Bloat. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3095370

Genco, N., Hölttä-Otto, K., & Seepersad, C. C. (2012). An Experimental Investigation of the Innovation Capabilities of Undergraduate Engineering Students. Journal of Engineering Education, 101(1), 60-81. doi:10.1002/j.2168-9830.2012.tb00041.x

Heath, D., & Heath, C. (2019). The Power of Moments. Random House UK.

I am an Associate Professor in Emerging Media at the UCF School of Visual Arts & Design with a mission to empower others through creative practice while delivering arts and cultural impact to underserved communities. I serve as creative director of Limbitless Solutions, a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Organization whose mission is to empower confidence and increase accessibility in the limb difference community through providing art-infused bionics at no cost to children. Our undergraduate team combines engineering and art to promote access and engagement in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education for a more inclusive future.

: www.limbitless-solutions.org

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