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Programming the FUTURE of Creativity

Dr. Erik Guzik demonstrates the potential of VPS with local kids.

In a post-Enron, post-Bernie Madoff world, the phrase “creative economist” is almost always followed by discussion of a trial and a lengthy prison term. When applied to Dr. Erik Guzik, associate professor of economics at the University of Science and Arts, however, it is in recognition of his journey to understand the mechanisms of creativity as well as his mission to improve the way that children are educated in the 21st century through a revolutionary technology known as Virtual Problem Solving (VPS).

Guzik, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, first came in contact with creativity studies in the 7th grade when his gifted and talented class began to participate in the Future Problem Solving Program (FPSP). Created by Dr. E. Paul Torrance in 1974, the program presented students with fictional scenarios set in the future where students were asked to solve certain problems.

“To give one example,” Guzik recalled, “one scenario for overcrowded prisons introduced us to an orbiting space prison in the future called Maxintern.

“As a team, we researched the topic of prisons, learning about such issues as costs, overcrowding, prisoner transportation, and so on, and then applied our research to this futuristic scenario.”

Using a six-step process to think “creatively and critically” about a wide-range of issues, the program engaged Guzik’s imagination and led to his participation in the program throughout his high-school career. In addition to competing internationally in the program, Guzik would go on, after college, to become an evaluator for the program and, eventually, helping to generate the futuristic scenarios that would stimulate the creativity of the next generation of students.

It was his years of experience working with the FPSP that led Guzik to consider not only its benefits to education but also its limitations.

“[Programs like the FPSP] are geared almost exclusively toward the gifted and talented,” Guzik said, “neglecting the wider student population, especially the under-represented and disadvantaged.”

The narrow focus of these creativity-cultivating programs also lost traction in classrooms as mandated testing became the norm in the last few decades. Teachers, hard-pressed by these mandates to cover all the material by which their students and schools would be judged, found it difficult to set aside class time for “extras” like creativity programs.

So, in 2005, Guzik, along with a group of students and teachers in Massachusetts, co-founded a non-profit organization with the goal of developing a program that would build on the successes of earlier creativity programs while improving upon their shortcomings. Thus, the Virtual Problem Solving Program, along with the educational software that powers it, was born.

VPS is a web-based technology that allows schools from all over the world to design problem-solving programs that address the specific educational needs of students of any age. It can be accessed by any classroom equipped with basic computer hardware and the capacity to connect to the Internet.

“Teams from different school districts can collaborate on classroom activities and topics,” Guzik said.

“We are also now introducing new competitive components of the program—when completed, classrooms will be able to compete in real-time as part of their efforts to complete classroom tasks, activities, and projects. We envision weekly competitions on a range of classroom activities with dynamically updated scores for participating classrooms.“

Utilizing the Internet to access VPS also opens up the possibility of making the program’s reach more universal, providing students with a vital tool for understanding the global nature of the workplaces they will eventually enter.

“As American students learn about new global regions through their study of assigned geography units, they will also be able to work collaboratively with schools from these regions during the school day,” Guzik said.

Armed with research and a vision, Guzik worked with USAO’s Development office to earn a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. The VPS Program is now underway in pilot schools in the Oklahoma A+ Schools network. While many of these schools are in the Oklahoma City metro area, others like Oolagah and Howe have benefitted from its presence among their curriculum.

In addition, Hewlett-Packard (HP) selected USAO from hundreds of competing institutions to join an education consortium focused on discovering how new technologies might better promote and assess higher order thinking skills like creativity.

Guzik recently traveled to India to share research related to the VPS Program as part of HP’s global Catalyst Initiative. The company has created five different teams of researchers to focus on issues relating to education in the 21st century. The VPS Program is part of a team that focuses specifically on ways to measure learning.

Currently, there are about 50 member institutions in the Catalyst Initiative, including a mix of schools from K-12 and higher education. Member institutions come from a number of countries around the world including South Africa, Spain, France, England, Russia, Kenya and China.

USAO is the only Oklahoma institution involved in the HP Catalyst Initiative.

“VPS is precisely the kind of program that establishes the cutting-edge nature of the educational experience at the University of Science and Arts,” said Dr. Dex Marble, vice-president for academic affairs at USAO.

“We strive to push the boundaries on problem-solving rather than simply memorizing information. Dr. Guzik’s initiatives promote creative approaches to dealing with the problems that confront our global society, both now and in the future.”

The HP conference in New Delhi, India, allowed Catalyst members to meet and discuss projects, initial results and the potential for future collaboration. The team presented their research about VPS and received very positive feedback from conference participants, including representatives from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Guzik indicated that the VPS Program is currently collaborating with other members of the Measuring Learning Consortium and hopes to further expand their work with HP in the fall.