Bringing It

Bringing It #116: Creative Inquiry: A Model of High-Impact Learning Beyond the Classroom

January 24, 2024

Dear Friends,

Welcome back to a new year and a new semester—we hope you’ve had a restful and joyful break.  In this issue of Bringing It, we continue our effort to lift up forward-thinking changemakers and draw inspiration from their work. Today we’re highlighting Lehigh University’s  Creative Inquiry initiative, led by Vice-Provost Khanjan Mehta. Creative Inquiry supports interdisciplinary, creative, and experiential learning opportunities across the university, aimed at encouraging exploration, innovation, and social impact.  As our conversation with Mehta showed us, it’s an exciting model of educational experimentation and institutional change, with implications for redefining the roles of students, faculty, and staff.

Creative Inquiry comprises a wide range of programs and initiatives to equip students with learning for an impactful life. For some students this impact can be found by participating in an accelerator like the Sustainable Happiness Institute where they work to define their own ikigai–their reason for being. Other students might find this in an Impact Fellowship where students and faculty work on yearlong projects to address global, local, and campus concerns and formally present their findings. And if they can’t find impact there, Lehigh 360 serves as a hub to connect them with interdisciplinary, experiential learning opportunities across the university.  These programs support students with “jagged edges,” says Mehta, enabling them to craft their educational experience in ways that may not fit a traditional educational path. In encouraging students to make their own models of education, Creative Inquiry introduces students not only to exemplary education but also to seeing their own potential.

This kind of learning requires an unusual level of vulnerability. First, faculty must be comfortable shedding their “expert” identity–as Mehta says, “you don’t have to be a master to be a creator.” They must enter projects as collaborators, creating knowledge together with students. For their part, students must be comfortable with the “wicked,” open-ended nature of the problems they are approaching in their projects and still take “radical ownership” of their learning. In our conversation Mehta recounted a project that focused on healthcare accessibility. The first cohort of students used AI to code a virtual assistant to support patients—and then prescribed a LinkedIn Learning course and other online learning resources to the second cohort over their winter break.  Both cohorts were willing to create and engage technological resources and to do “extra” work outside of the semester to advance the project towards sustainable impact.

Mehta emphasized that instituting this kind of change requires a systematic shift in roles and practices. Faculty and students need to reimagine who they can be in a learning space, to embrace opportunities that may not “count” in the conventional curriculum but that have the potential to fulfill curiosity and lead to professional development. And the institution also needs to agree to, as Mehta says, “do first, learn later.” Most Creative Inquiry projects serve as testing grounds for ideas, reflecting Mehta’s philosophy that not only faculty and students but the university itself has to be comfortable with exploration, collaboration, and testing different ways of thinking: “It is creation that leads to greater learning.”

This kind of high-impact, interdisciplinary, experiential learning—and the spirit of institutional experimentation that supports it—is one important strand of the positive change that our Paradigm Project seeks to promote.  Lehigh’s Creative Inquiry initiative is not the only example.  Worcester Polytechnic Institute infuses project-based learning for all students through its WPI Plan, which requires students to pursue major projects in order to graduate.  Our home institution, Elon University, similarly requires students to pursue experiential learning in such areas as global engagement, service, leadership, internships, and undergraduates.  We’re always looking for other exemplars; please reach out to us with your own models of change.

Thanks so much to Khanjan Mehta for sharing his perspective and his inspirational story of change.

News and Events:

  • The AAC&U Annual Meeting took place in Washington DC from January 17th-19th. Paul and a few of our Emerging Model colleagues presented a talk titled “Speculative Futures, Engaged Learning, & Making Room for New Paradigms in Higher Education,” David led a panel titled “Putting Equity at the Center Means Institutional Change: Why That’s Imperative, Why It’s Hard,” and many of our Paradigm Working Group members spoke on a variety of panels and topics. We then gathered the Paradigm Working Group for our bi-annual gathering at Georgetown’s Red House. We’re looking forward to sharing more reflections from these meetings soon!
  • Our colleague Patty Robinson has written a chapter for a new book, Reframing Community Engagement in Higher Education. This book seeks to define the strategies and challenges inherent within community engagement as a catalyst for developing students’ sense of civic engagement. Congratulations to Patty for this important resource.
  • Wagner College is currently hiring a Civic Engagement and Bonner Program Coordinator to lead and carry out the comprehensive vision of Civic Engagement at Wagner. The coordinator will lead academic and curricular programming, in addition to coordinating the Bonner Program.

With thanks for you and all you do,

David, Gianna, Gillian, Kate, Paul, and Todd

Bringing Theory to Practice
Elon University