Creative Thought in Student Led Internships

The foundry10 internship program is deeply rooted in student voice. When applications open, high school students are prompted to present to us a project idea they are passionate about. Students are admitted through an interview process that includes a pitch of their idea, some discussion about timelines and goals, and a bit about the students themselves. Once selected into the program, intern groups are given creative freedom with project design, group dynamics, work structure, project goals, and formal deadlines. Students begin, with the help of a mentor, by building out their idea and planning the resources and time they will need to progress, and then the real work starts.

In the fall of 2016, with ten groups and a total of 22 students, we conducted pre-program, midpoint, and post-program interviews over the three-month duration of the internship. Our objective has always been to better understand their experiences in a semi-structured and project-based learning environment, and we have been running these internships for three years with well over one hundred interns in total. This experience has helped us refine our research questions, and focus further on the benefits of both student-driven and project-based learning including enhanced creativity, identity discovery, collaboration skills, professional development, and much more.

However, one of the most interesting things that we see in our internship program are the diverse and unique ways in which students apply creative thought.

Mentorship

Before we can dig into the ways in which our interns have surprised us with their ability to think creatively, we need to talk about the relationship between the mentor’s guidance and the program’s inherent freedom. One of the key points in the internship is that student groups are provided a professional-level mentor in their field of interest. Mentors are present for approximately five hours per week (interns are present for 10-20 hours depending on the time of year) to answer questions and give advice. Their objective is to teach students the necessary skills to make progress without influencing the students’ core idea and creative vision.

We designed the program this way to examine what happens when we switch power dynamics in a learning environment. What benefits manifest when students begin guiding themselves? How does this impact their views on career options and fields? Through this research, it was evident that the students perceived the mentors’ back-seat role as affording them more space for trial and error with their own creativity. This was very important to students’ feelings of ownership over their project, which was critical to the success of the program.

“She definitely is just helping us by guiding us. She is letting us be creative.” – High school intern

Above all, we’ve seen that a more flexible learning structure, wherein mentors take a supportive role rather than a leadership role, encourages students to discover and build their own creative processes. The interns consistently mention that this is a critical part of the program as they want to solve these problems on their own as much as possible. This has led them to some varied and interesting forms of creativity in both self expression and project problem solving.

Approaching problems and Challenges

Amongst our intern groups, we noticed that students went through various creative processes, and this seemed to create a lot of value for them. While the specifics of each group’s approach to creative thought were unique, we noticed that, in all groups, the students were coming up with interesting new ways to solve both artistic and technical problems.

Each project came with many chances for students to show their creativity in the way they approach problems. Whether focused on finding a solution for a known problem, or expressing a complex and nuanced artistic idea, the students were always looking for ways to think about these challenges from a different perspective. For instance, when using a soldering iron you typically need two hands, one for the solder and one for the iron. One student group created a dual purpose tool that feeds solder to the iron automatically, freeing your second hand. There have also been students who have explored new uses for audio in virtual reality, what engages a large audience with dance and music, different methods of fiber-optic data transmission, how to communicate the strains of social media on a canvas, prosthetic limb design using special 3D printing methods, and much more. These students describe the creativity in their projects in similar ways to each other, even in cases where they must come up with highly varied alternative solutions to unusual problems.

Overall, the loosely structured learning environment of the internships opened these possibilities for students to explore creativity in a way that creates meaning for them. In our interviews, it was clear that students were changing their minds about what it meant to be creative, and how they think about themselves as creative people.

Creative Solutions

In the interviews, students shared with us how the internship was altering their views on creativity. Getting to address real world problems that had not been solved, even by professionals, pushed students to expand their thinking and draw on their own lived experiences.

For example, one group came to us with an idea focused around drone-based crowd control. These students drew attention to a severe problem in Saudi Arabia where thousands of people were trampled in a human stampede. They observed a harmful and problematic situation, then brainstormed creative solutions around their passion area, robotics. They ultimately came up with the idea of a remote control drone that could detect, monitor, and navigate large populations of people safely. They then had to build both the drone, the application to run it, and a way to market it to their potential customers.

“To me, creativity directly correlates to problem solving which is necessary for everything.” – High school intern

It is easy to draw the parallels between creative problem solving and highly technical subject areas, such as robotics, virtual reality, game design, or app development. However, we have also observed this skill in the expressive and artistic groups who are looking to address and begin to solve cultural issues they perceive in their social spheres.

A good example of this is a group of painters that pulled their inspiration from social media’s impact on society. They pointed out that the attention we put towards our cell phones distracts us from the real life happening around us. This group constructed and painted two 8-foot tall murals, one of which featured a man obliviously surrounded by a zombie apocalypse with eyes glued to his mobile screen. Here we observed students exaggerate the effect of a common habit with hopes to catch the observer’s’ attention and sway movement in culture towards improved self awareness. The other painting showed the view of pristine mountains through a phone screen, and, outside of the frame, was the garbage and destruction often left behind by tourists. The aim for this project, as a whole, was to creatively solve a larger scale societal problem. This was similar to the technical projects, but dealt with different materials and more abstract issues.

Through the interns’ work, we’ve seen that students of both artistic and technical backgrounds can creatively solve the problems they observe around them. The students’ solutions process oriented and socially influential. We believe this is largely due to the open structure of this learning environment pushing the interns to reach these creative conclusions.

Obstacles in Creativity

While there are many benefits to a student guided program, we also witnessed students facing creative challenges. For example, we found it interesting in the interviews that many students felt pressure to create something new and unique. This was never a requirement of the project, though the students were driven towards it anyways. We noticed that this thought was exciting for many students, but for some it became overwhelming and potentially discouraging.

“It’s hard to create something different,”
“You don’t want to repeat what has already been written about. Originality.”
“We’re trying to compose original music.”
“To be a trendsetter…it’s important not to follow the crowd all the time.”
“We’re making swimsuits and we have to come up with original ideas that haven’t been done before.”

– High school interns

The pressure the students put on themselves to building something innovative lowered some students’ hopes of their interests being feasible career choices. For example, a fashion student stated she was unsure she wanted to pursue fashion as a career because it’s very difficult to create clothing nobody else has created before. Yet, in other projects and programs, we have seen that creating something that already exists is still a valuable process to a student, as it teaches them a medium that they can creatively manipulate later on. All of this leads us to further question, is this student’s perception of needing to create something unique hindering her learning process and confidence? Does she predict she cannot create anything new because of her current skill level? Is there a balance between teaching kids what has been done before, and asking them to create something completely new? Would this balance provide students with the most productive and advantageous outcomes? These are all points we are looking into with our continued research on the internship program.

Finally, with the self-inflicted pressure to create something innovative, these interns were pushed to think outside of their box. Although they found this difficult at times, and sometimes students would reconsider or even switch projects, the natural high-bar students set for themselves, more often than not, helped them work through their creative blocks and ultimately come up with an idea that stretched beyond their original expectations.

Other potential barriers to student creativity that came from an open structure were: taking creative feedback, compromising with teammates, managing timelines, self-discipline, and effective communication of ideas. However, these problems exist and need to be dealt with in real workplaces. The students recognized this and mentioned these barriers as challenging yet very important to their development and preparation for “the real world”

Why is creativity important to students?

Overall, 95% percent of our interns told us that they want to continue enhancing their creative thought processes after the internship.

“I think it’s really important for everyone to be creative. Everyone has different ideas and it’s important to share those.”
“With art you can express yourself in any way you want, that’s what I like about it.”
“How do we expect our world to progress at all if we don’t take a leap from what the norm is today?”
“I would be so bored without creativity. Things would be very stale.”
“If you are not expressing yourself, how will you know who you are and what you are capable of?”

– High school interns

This shows that creativity played a very important role in all the interns’ projects, and open ended expectations were important to their learning. 85% of our interns are continuing to pursue their areas of interest, while 15% are now seeking out different ones. The open structure also allowed students to explore new avenues in their areas of interest to narrow down their career choices in the future. Letting students choose how they tackle their projects allows them to select the type of growth they see as most important and relevant to their learning at the time. These alternative paths might not be achievable in a traditionally structured, step-by-step program.

Conclusion

Throughout the past 3 years, we have seen how important creativity is to students, particularly when they have the freedom to guide their own learning. Solving problems takes on a very different feel when the students have identified an issue in the world that means a lot to them. This drives passion, excitement, engagement, and, most of all, creative thought.

Giving students room for their own exploration, achievements, and obstacles is critical in their development. Throughout these internships, we noticed how many students rarely get the chance to navigate through their own learning. Having a student-driven project environment helps realistic benefits and obstacles come to light, and enables us to continue assisting and developing youth education.

Above all, it is extremely important that we not overstructure and allow students to hit roadblocks that directly reflect the types of situations they’ll face in real life endeavors. We are passionate about learning more alongside students and teachers to better prepare youth for success in their future careers.

If you have an interesting thought or idea about how to approach or expand on student learning, reach out to us to collaborate.