This architecture professor has adopted a practice that helps students from multiple disciplines tap into their creative minds and generate new ideas.
Professor in the College of Architecture, Texas A&M University
MA and BA in Architecture
You might think that a class devoted to inventing products or services that might eventually turn into disruptive, future-focused businesses would be amazingly fun. And it is—registration for the environmental design course taught by Rodney C. Hill, MA, at Texas A&M University, often fills up in a matter of hours, with more students emailing Hill afterward, begging to get in.
What is not always so fun for the students: trying to be creative on a deadline.
The course, made up chiefly of engineering, science, and business majors, requires its 175-plus participants to spend every other week brainstorming in small groups to generate original ideas (and ensure that their patents do not already exist). And individual students are also tasked with thinking of a new product or service every 14 days. That means that, over the course of the semester, each person generates seven original ideas and also works with their group to generate another seven original ideas. That can be a tall order, even for the most innovative minds—and even for honors students in a student-startup incubator course like this one.
Tapping creativity, after all, is not as easy as turning on a light switch.
To help get students’ creative juices flowing, Hill turned to the practices of some of the great thinkers of the past—and some amazing modern-day athletes—to help unlock a state of focused concentration and creativity best known as flow.
Innovation: Showing how to find “flow state”
In looking at creative geniuses through history, Hill found that many talented men and women had various exercises, routines, and personal habits that helped them get in touch with their own inspiration and insight.
“Charles Dickens slept with his bed pointed toward magnetic north, Einstein would take breaks to play the violin, and Nikola Tesla would take 20-minute meditation naps,” Hill says. He even learned of a Nobel Prize–winning chemist who listened to a Bach sonata over and over.
Hill tells his students that high performance in any pursuit can almost always be traced to this “flow state of mind”—sometimes described as being “in the zone”—in which creativity flows, and the person is so focused they are almost invulnerable to outside distraction.
“When you’re in a flow state, everything works,” says Hill. “Generally, it’s when the right- and left-brain hemispheres are locked into the frontal lobe, so you have total consciousness on what you’re doing.”
To help students get there, Hill practices several types of guided meditation with his students—the same techniques used by many athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs (amateur and professional alike).
“Most [students in this class] want to be inventors of some sort or start a business. They’re allowed to create. They don’t memorize or regurgitate. Everything they do in the class is creating knowledge and producing original things.”— Rodney C. Hill, MA
Course: ENDS-101 Environmental Design 101
Frequency: Two 75-minute class meetings per week for one semester
Class size: 175
Course description: Fundamental design processes, issues, and theories relevant to design resolution and the creation of new ideas; creative thought processes from the formation of ideas through incubation to final product and future impact on the physical environment and society.
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Lesson: Guided meditation helps students go with the flow
To get students in touch with their own flow states, Hill takes them through a series of “progressive relaxation” exercises to calm the senses and open the mind to inspiration.
Hill points out that different people will have different muses—one activity may not work for all students. The goal is to help students recognize their flow states and what helps them achieve that level of concentration. “It might not have anything to do with the outcome,” Hill says, “but it puts them in that state.”
With that in mind, here is how Hill approaches the idea of a “state of flow” with his students, as well as his favorite flow-state practices.
Help them recognize flow state
“To get them to understand it, I use a lot of athletic analogies,” says Hill.
He especially enjoys this example of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who won gold medals in the heptathlon and the long jump at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea: “She came out of the starting gate, then her face fell and she looked relaxed, and she grinned, and she looked like she was going into slow motion, but a superfast slow motion. She wasn’t cognizant of the crowd, and she wasn’t cognizant of where the [finish line] was,” Hill says. “They asked her what got her into that flow state, and she said, ‘Well, I just learned to relax.’”
Many times, he notes, those who are in a flow state are so “in the moment” that they do not even realize it, because everything else “disappears.”
How Hill Finds His Flow
A noted sculptor, Hill observes a particular routine to stoke his own creative juices: He drinks five cups of tea, listens to an eighteenth-century piece of classical music, and then wanders a bit around his house. “And then I can sit down, and everything starts flowing out,” says Hill. “I use that to get into a flow state.”
Exercise 1: Be the apple
This 30-minute exercise helps students clear their minds, leave their immediate environment, and strengthen their sense of focus.
“I pass out apples to everybody in the class, and they all lay back in their chairs or lie on the floor,” says Hill. “And then I take them through experiencing what an apple is like.”
“The exercise takes them through eating an apple, digesting it, [then] imagining that they are the apple on the apple tree in a beautiful orchard way out in the country,” says Hill. He continues winding the clock backwards, taking them through the rest of the apple’s lifecycle. “From going back into a blossom, and then into the sap in the tree, and down into the roots, and out into the soil, and then as water evaporating back up into the sky, and then condensing and coming back down as rain.”
Exercise 2: Lie on the beach
Like the apple exercise, this puts students in a state of mind “where they’re not cognizant of the moment,” says Hill.
Again, he has students lie down, but this time they imagine they are on the sand at the edge of an ocean. “They’re having the waves come in slowly and wash over their feet, and [then slowly wash] back and down,” says Hill. The wave ventures farther each time, up to the knees, then the waist, and so on. “And they’re becoming more and more relaxed as the waves advance,” he says.
Exercise 3: Walk in the woods
This time, students pretend to venture deeper and deeper into a lush forest, noticing all the details of the natural world that surrounds them.
“I usually preface this one by mentioning that Mozart would take long walks in the woods,” says Hill. “And he’d hear the birds chirping, and he’d see 50 different shades of green coming through the leaves.”
“He’d hear the babbling brook, and he would feel the lush grass beneath his feet,” says Hill. “And then he could go and sit down and write a full piece when he got back to the piano.”
Hill's Student/Investor Connector
In addition to bringing in prominent college alumni for regular visits to the class, Hill also refers his students to Startup Aggieland, a student-entrepreneur incubation group he established along with four other campus professors.
“They have a list of every millionaire former [Texas A&M] student and can team them up with students to develop their businesses,” Hill explains. “Startup has a Shark Tank every semester and invites investors from across the nation to judge.”
Hill says Startup Aggieland has invested more than $30 million in student businesses in the past five years. BusinessBecause has ranked it among the top 10 student business incubators worldwide.
Explain the added perks of progressive relaxation
In addition to stimulating creativity and inspiration, the exercises can be useful in coping with other college classes and challenges, says Hill.
“If a student has been up all night studying, and the professor has a series of red-herring questions, and you panic, you might forget what you’ve studied,” says Hill. By using progressive relaxation on a regular basis, Hill explains that students will be able to pull themselves out of a state of stress and into a flow state faster. “I tell them that you can get back into a state of relaxation if you practice, and [if you can do that at test time,] your memory will come back.”
Hill’s course is so successful in generating useful business ideas that he requires all students to sign nondisclosure agreements at the beginning of the semester to prevent students from capitalizing on each other’s ideas without permission or collaboration.
Prominent college alumni also pay regular visits to the class and size up students’ progress for possible angel investments. According to Hill, alumni investment in student-inspired business concepts over the last five years has totaled $30 million.