Penn State MOOC explores the science of creativity

Katie Jacobs
September 05, 2013

To some, creativity may seem like a gift — a natural talent that only a few privileged souls possess. But according to Jack V. Matson, professor emeritus of environmental engineering at Penn State, this is a common misconception. Matson believes we all are innately creative, and that each one of us can be taught to tap into and maximize our own special brand of creativity.

Helping students around the globe fulfill their creative potential is the goal of Penn State’s upcoming Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): Creativity, Innovation and Change, a class that will launch this week via the popular website Coursera. Recently developed by Matson and his team, the Creativity MOOC will feature introspective exercises and lessons in several different approaches to the creative process.

“This course is about helping people understand they truly do have latent creative potential, and will teach them how to use their creative ideas effectively,” he explained. “We’re using classic, experiential learning techniques that students can take and apply to their lives, their futures and their communities.”

Joining Matson in designing and instructing the MOOC are Darrell Velegol, distinguished professor of chemical engineering, and Kathryn W. Jablokow, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering design, both at Penn State.

Jablokow emphasizes that the course is open to everyone, and students of all disciplines can benefit from the class.

“We’re trying to take the mystical side of creativity away,” added Jablokow. “We want to teach our students that it is possible to study and facilitate change in your creative ability, no matter what your occupation is or what you’re studying.”

With over 120,000 students signed up for the MOOC, demographics are varied — in fact, 70 percent are enrolled from countries outside the United States. Jablokow said this gives the instructors a unique opportunity to study what creativity looks like across the globe and to see how these differences affect the way students interact with the course and each other.

Velegol noted, “We all have creative ability. This course lays out a process by which each of us can reach that creativity, in our own diverse way.”

To accommodate these different learning and interaction styles, the team came up with three distinct student profiles: the Adventurer, Explorer and Tourist. Adventurers represent those with the most commitment and involvement, while Tourists pick and choose their activities. Explorers fall somewhere in the middle. Participants will be able to identify with whichever profile fits their available time and commitment level.

Available to all three types of students will be an array of videos, exercises and projects that will be posted and assigned throughout the course. One activity — dubbed "Junkyard Wars" by the team — is an exercise in innovation and entrepreneurial creativity. Participants will gather odds and ends (or “junk”) from around their homes and then attempt to use these items to create a new product, devise a marketing strategy and sell it.

Matson said that fear of failure is one obstacle he expects many students to encounter.

“One question we anticipate getting frequently is ‘What if I fail?’” said Matson. “Usually, a person’s instinct is to either deny or try to avoid failure. The reality is, though, that if you’re creative, you will fail. So we need to embrace failure, because this is what teaches us what works and what doesn’t.”

The MOOC’s students won’t be the only ones learning — the instructional team members say they hope to get just as much from teaching the course as the students they’re instructing.

“What we’re teaching, we’re also applying,” said Jablokow. “We want to observe these students and see what they’re learning, finding effective and what influences their creativity the most. Then we want to use that knowledge to make the MOOC even better.”

In a similar vein, the process the team went through to build the MOOC used many of the same principles the instructors will be teaching their students. The class was taught at Penn State before, but it was held in a classroom setting and the course had to be rethought to be transformed into a MOOC. Velegol said the team had to constantly challenge their respective ideas on what elements comprise a “class” while designing the course.

“Sometimes, the constraints of the traditional ‘classroom course’ structure — blackboards, grades, textbooks and exams — limit what we can accomplish and how many students we can educate,” he stated. “What if we can start over? What if we could help our students see that they can assess themselves and others in ways far more meaningful to progress? I enjoyed that challenge.”

Moving forward, the team hopes they’ll get enough feedback throughout the course of the MOOC to make it even better for its second session next year. Additionally, Jablokow said she is striving to not only spread the message of creativity but also to showcase Penn State’s reputation.

“The Penn State community already knows about all the great things the University does,” said Jablokow. “With this MOOC, we want to spread that message around to the rest of the world.”

To learn more or sign up for the new Creativity MOOC, visit For more IT stories at Penn State, go to

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Last Updated September 06, 2013