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At Villanova creativity day, it's engineers gone wild

On Thursday, some of Villanova's biggest brainiacs wore headpieces fashioned from pipe cleaners while they sang a children's song. Anything to inspire creativity.

Impersonating bananas are (from left) Mike Hinder, Wes Blummer, and Evan Pelletier. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Impersonating bananas are (from left) Mike Hinder, Wes Blummer, and Evan Pelletier. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)Read more

Inside the Center for Engineering Education and Research at Villanova University on Thursday, the tools in use included toilet-paper rolls, tissue boxes, Popsicle sticks, and glitter glue. Some of the school's biggest brainiacs wore headpieces fashioned from pipe cleaners while they sang a children's song.

The goal was to encourage free-spirited creativity among a group traditionally boxed in by methodology and math. And, just possibly, to inspire the next Steve Jobs - whoever he or she might be.

As the world absorbed the news of the death Wednesday of Apple Inc.'s cofounder, and wondered what would become of the U.S. technology sector without Jobs' extraordinary vision, Villanova's College of Engineering spent two hours trying to get 28 sophomores to think more like Jobs and less like engineers.

In other words, to consider the relevance of what is being created, not just the mechanics behind it.

Hence, these otherwise serious-minded academics were fashioning toys out of household items, with enthusiastic prompting from Please Touch Museum representatives, as part of the Creativity and Innovation Course within the university's Engineering Entrepreneurship minor.

The degree program is in its third year, but Thursday's workshop seemed to have particular meaning with the passing of Jobs, probably the preeminent product engineer/entrepreneur of the last quarter-century.

"He had an amazing ability to understand technology, recognize opportunities, predict what would delight customers, tempt and then delight investors, manage and inspire engineers and developers, and produce products that were always both beautiful and useful," said Edmond Dougherty, interim director and one of the designers of the program.

Whether those qualities can be taught is an issue of some debate, Dougherty acknowledged: "Some people are creative and innovative, other people not so much."

But the idea behind the Engineering Entrepreneurship minor is to at least create an environment to foster that, said Gary A. Gabriele, dean of the College of Engineering.

"In many years past in engineering education, students were less creative when they left than when they entered, because we beat it out of them," Gabriele said. "That's a typical engineering program that I went through."

A "huge fan" of Jobs and the products he brought to market, Gabriele said Apple's leader "was a very special person" because he had "a certain eye for importance of style, look, and feel, and a certain persistence and tenacity to make things happen."

The Engineering Entrepreneurship program is intended to "allow somebody who has those kinds of qualities to find a way to start to build them, and understand them, and thrive a bit," Gabriele said.

Or, as Dougherty put it: "Take their brains and squeeze all the juices they have out there."

That was the idea Thursday as groups of five or six were given 20 minutes to make something to play with out of not much of anything.

The finished products wouldn't necessarily set the toy industry abuzz. But the efforts, especially given the time constraint, drew praise and applause from the Please Touch facilitators.

One group created two boats with the ability to catapult objects at each other. Another fashioned a robot; still another, a dog whose head could be manipulated.

Mechanical-engineering major Evan Pelletier, 19, of Hartford, Conn., was part of the team that created a ring-toss game involving a plastic cup-and-string contraption inspired by the old Mouse Trap game by Hasbro.

Pelletier said he decided to pursue a minor in Engineering Entrepreneurship because it "decreases the limits and your boundaries for your thinking."

The bulk of engineering classes, he said, are "technical and straightforward - you know, just the facts and the math, but with this, it kind of lets you go out of the box. It's a part of the brain a lot of people don't use."

But Steve Jobs did, Pelletier noted. It was a trait Pelletier admired, along with Jobs' willingness to take the risks necessary to carry an idea from conception to consumers' hands.

"He knew what he wanted and never gave up."

Does Pelletier have similar potential?

"I wouldn't expect to be exactly like Steve Jobs as a result of this class, but it's giving me the tools," he said. "It's opening the doors to maybe eventually be that one day."

Maybe, indeed.

Has Gabriele identified a Jobs-in-the-making at Villanova?

"I can't say we have yet," he said. "There's enough opportunity within four years for people like that yet to emerge. There's a certain level of maturity that even Steve Jobs had to go through."

Meanwhile, of the void Jobs' death creates, Gabriele said: "This must be what it felt like when Edison or Henry Ford died."