Teaching Innovation Through Undergraduate Research

John R. Brandenberger

This note reports on a three-year investigation into the teaching of innovation being conducted in the Department of Physics at Lawrence University. Innovation, which always involves new ideas, risks and rewards, and successes and failures, may be excessively oversold nowadays, but we physicists at Lawrence take it seriously because we believe that successes in the teaching of innovation will ultimately help solve problems ranging from the slippage in US competitiveness to various global issues associated with energy, water, health, and nutrition.

The current investigation was prompted largely by the 2005 NAS report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm (RAGS). This very important report is daunting but intriguing because it identifies problems to which we physicists at Lawrence feel we can contribute. Developed by Nobel laureates, academics, and CEOs, RAGS carefully documents the current slippage in US competitiveness and the factthat US prosperity hinges on high-quality jobs — the creation of which depend largely upon science, engineering, technology, and innovation. The US led in these areas during the 20th century, but we are ceding that leadership today. RAGS also emphasizes that scientific research creates new knowledge, which, when combined with creative engineering, generates innovative companies that create new jobs and prosperity. We see RAGS as throwing down a gauntlet regarding innovation, and we are picking it up to explore how to better teach innovation.

By the way, we view innovation as an effort that employs new ideas or approaches to improve products or strategies that draw upon important antecedents..., or,... an effort that involves a lengthy process of accretion resembling the manner in which an oyster wraps layers of nacre around a grain of sand to create a pearl. The question arises whether innovation can be taught?Some doubt it, while others argue that it is best done in the humanities.We believe, however, that scientific research programs offer very promising settings for the teaching of innovation. We also believe thatphysicists, perhaps better than most individuals,appreciate that innovation must occupy center stage in a research program, or that innovation serves as the lifeblood of such a research effort. Hence we believe that research programs should serve as excellent environments within which to incubate innovative undergraduates. We are testing that conjecture.

During both the summers of 2009 and 2010, we used our own ongoing research programs in astrophysics, biophysics, spectroscopy, surface physics, plasmas and EIT to support this study. Six faculty members and undergraduates were involved each summer, and we used the following five-step procedure to superimpose innovation activities onto our existing research programs:

Step 1 (week 1): After viewing the video "Deep Dive" filmed at IDEO, we discuss idea generation, the efforts of Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, brainstorming, prototyping, the dictum"Fail Often to Succeed Sooner,"and the importance of perseverance and expertise.
Step 2 (weeks 1-5): While acquainting themselves with their research programs, we urged them to try to conceive innovative changes that might improve their programs.
Step 3 (weeks 4-7): Next we encouraged brainstorming of the likely cost and merit of these changes.
Step 4 (weeks 7-8): We then considered implementing the changes using alternate technologies.
Step 5 (weeks 8-10): Prototypes of the changes were developed, refined and incorporated.

Based upon the collected results of two summer offerings, we believe that our approach is working, i.e. it seems to be encouraging innovative behavior and mindsets on the part of our students. To enliven the investigation, we use questionnaires, perusals of student notebooks, rubrics to probe the acquisition of character traits associated with innovation, student presentations, and outside experts to assess the program. Our fifteen rubrics, based upon fifteen character traits associated with innovation, help us measure whether our students are increasing their originality, creativity, practicality, productivity, risk-taking, tolerance for ambiguity, team participation, vigor, connectivity, insightfulness, articulateness, curiosity, divergent thinking, inclusiveness, and self-reflection. The rubrics, six of which appear below, are scored from 5 (high) to 1 (low) by faculty in "one-on-one" conferences with students three times each summer:

1. Originality: Successful innovators develop strong predilections to conceive new ideas, strategies, approaches, and/or processes that bring value to their endeavors.

2. Creativity: The most able innovators generate particularly imaginative ideas for which there are no antecedents. We reserve the word creativeto describe this level of thinking.

3. Practicality: Innovative physicists tend to emphasize practical matters (e.g., ideas, strategies, processes, or devices) characterized by utility, intrinsic value, and useful function.

4. Risk-taking: Successful innovators willingly assume risk of failure because they know that failure can be instructive. Some endorse the dictum, "Fail often to succeed sooner."

5. Tolerance of ambiguity: A successful innovator is comfortable operating in areas characterized by complexity, asymmetry, and uncertainty.

6. Team participation: Innovators embrace cooperation, team play, and flexibility.

Figure 1 provides plots of the average scores for six of the fifteen rubrics and all nine of our research students during the summer of 2009; "baseline" corresponds to the beginning, "midpoint" and "final" to the middle and end of the summer. Note that the trends are upward suggesting that we are making headway in shaping thinking and behavior. The plotted points
show that show statistically significant changes over the course of the summer are underlined on the charts, and the opinions of the visiting panelists are shown on the right.

Fig. 1. Plots of averaged scores for nine student researchers on six of the fifteen rubrics.

Fig. 1. Plots of averaged scores for nine student researchers on six of the fifteen rubrics.

Late in both summers, three visiting Ph.D. physicists interviewed our students and reported the following: the frequent brainstormings along with the dictum"Fail often to succeed sooner" and the "Deep Dive" video made major impressions; the program was extremely compressed, but the students thoroughly embraced innovation; our emphasis on speaking skills was appreciated; students appreciated the greater freedom when supervisors were absent; and student attitudes toward risk, creativity, and divergent thinking were reinforced.

Overall, this investigation, which is based on six coordinated summer research programs, each outfitted with innovative overlays, seem to be successful. Substantial research progress was made in each of the research groups. Some of the more notable student achievements include:

Two students modified a torroidal plasma vessel so that a filament could be extracted without breaking vacuum. The mechanism and drive unit were actually incorporated into the vessel.

Two students extended some well-established code for simulating the creation of extrasolar planets; they improved the treatments of boundary conditions among other things.

One student examined EIT in Rb vapor subject to a weak magnetic field. She improved the setup, modified the Labview control program, and took preliminary power-dependency data.

Three students investigated the mechanics and transport of single biological polymers using a laser-based microscope. They developed better labeling and detection schemes.

To measure splittings in the 2F states of 87Rb, one student removing non-linearities in the laser sweep and became co-author of a paper (Phys. Rev A 81, 032515, 24 March 2010).

While innovation provided the unifying theme for the past two summers in these offerings, most of the work focused on the actual research. Students concentrated on learning the strategies and goals of their respective programs. Since all six programs were capable of generating publishable results, the overall expectations were quite challenging especially for the students who had completed only two years of physics. We learned that imposing the innovation expectation was a taller order than anticipated. As a result, the actual innovative achievements of the students fell somewhat short of our expectations because the students were too hard-pressed trying to understand the basic physics in their respective groups.

We remain convinced, however, that research programs can serve as effective incubators of innovative thinking. To improve the situation, we are adopting a strategy in which "less is more," whereby we are suggesting that students strive for a mastery of only part of the individual research agendas. In this way we hope that each program can provide more time for innovative thinking and action. We are also meeting weekly with our upcoming research students during the spring term prior to the summer effort to help bring them up to speed regarding research objectives.


We are pleased to acknowledge NSF/CCLI support for this program. Support was also provided by NSF and NASA research grants, a grant from Research Corporation, Dr. Erlan Bliss, the late Dale S. Skran, Sr., and Lawrence University.

John R. Brandenberger is the Alice G. Chapman professor of Physics at Lawrence University.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.