January 13, 2012 | Madeline Tracy

Students in a Calvin interim class are learning lessons on creativity and failure.

As students in the “Creating Smartphone Apps” interim class settled into their chairs, computer science professor Keith Vander Linden began a lecture on bravery with an analogy.

“Anyone can take two steps into the dark,” he said. “ Worst case, you hit your shin on the coffee table. But oftentimes, you can find surprising things in the dark.”

Bravery is just one aspect of creativity that Vander Linden covers in his interim class along with learning how to build an Android-based smartphone app using the guide App Inventor: Create Your Own Android Apps. The class is filed under Interdisciplinary, and is open to all majors, not just those with computer programming experience.

To get his students thinking further about bravery, Vander Linden proposed an exercise.

Drawing on new skills

“Risk takers are self-accepting,” he said, “willing to make mistakes. To practice this, I want you to turn to the person next to you, and in 30 seconds, draw your partner."

The request is met by groans and nervous laughter, but the students do the assignment, many hunching over their drawings to hide their less-than-perfect artistic abilities. They then shared the drawings with one another, and the air soon filled with comments like, “If I had more than 30 seconds, this would be a masterpiece,” and, “Oh yeah, you have hair too, don’t you.”

As uncomfortable as the exercise is, said Vander Linden, these students are learning to take the risk of “stepping into the dark,” even though many assume they will fail before they even begin. After the exercise, Vander Linden showed a video clip of J.K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech, entitled, “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.”

Her words are good for VanderLinden’s students to hear as they wrestle with App Inventor. It’s meant to simplify the process so that programming experience is not required; however, the process does require some programming knowledge, as App Inventor uses boxes with commands inside to represent a more visual understanding of the final outcome of the app.

Creativity for all departments

The other focus of the class is the different aspects of creativity, and  why it is important to all majors, not just the art and CAS departments. Despite the fact that the class is meant to teach students how to build Android apps, the main lesson that Vander Linden wants his students to walk away with deals with creativity, and his goal is teaching the students’ brains a new way of thinking and creating.

As the students of this interim class begin to design what their apps will do, Vander Linden keeps them busy with several creative exercises to “open the flood gate of ideas, no matter how stupid they seem. People who think outside the box will have the next best idea. Ninety-nine out of a hundred people in math and engineering are problem solvers. We need people with vision.”

Vander Linden is hoping that his students realize that creativity is not limited to the fine arts departments, but also needs to be harnessed in the math and science departments.“ Steve Jobs was actually studying marketing before he dropped out of college, so he had the people skills and knew to surround himself with great programmers like Steve Wozniak … I’m hoping that I inspire more ‘Steve’s’  in this class to create the next big thing.” 

Keith Vander Linden

Drawing each other.

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