From improv to invention: students learn creative problem-solving through theater techniques

students make a human structure in the improv workshop at the Meinig School

On October 4, 2021, Meinig School undergraduate seniors and Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) students at Cornell University got a lesson in lesson in improvisational acting (yes, Improv!) in a workshop held in Weill Hall.


The workshop is part of the undergraduate capstone design course BME 4080, which leads seniors in a year-long project to address a real-word medical need (see Design Mind: The Meinig School’s creative, collaborative and applied approach to design.) Taught by Professor James Antaki, the class trains students to explore the design process before embarking on an intensive project in the spring, in which seniors build and present their biomedical devices to peers and industry professionals.

Prior to the workshop, Professor Antaki has students read the abridged version of Patricia Ryan Madson’s “Improv Wisdom: Don't Prepare, Just Show Up”. In light of the Madson text, students then recall and respond to situations in which they needed to "invent on the spot." Dr. Antaki also presents a lecture on Ideation to demonstrate how the improv concepts might help students become more effective innovators and inventors.

student participates in improv workshop

Along with lessons about affinity diagrams, intellectual property, regulatory agencies, and how to interview physicians, professor Antaki introduces students to improvisation concepts to get students to bring out the “artist within them,” and to “overcome their fears of being wrong.” These lessons include “Make Mistakes, Please” to encourage students to explore beyond their initial idea – a common trap engineers fall into, according to Antaki – and “Take Care of Each Other” to promote collaboration and synergy in multidisciplinary teams. Application of these lessons comes in the form of the two-hour workshop presented by Justin Zell of Steel City Improv Theater (SCIT), Pittsburgh, PA.

Originally from Binghamton, NY, just 50 miles south of Ithaca, Zell has been in the business for over 20 years. SCIT is a group that both performs comedy shows and runs improv classes on “applied improvisation” in order to teach people “to deal with the unexpected in this increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world we live in,” says Zell.

students build a human structure in the improv workshop

A communal exhale surfs the student crowd at the start of the workshop when Zell declares “there will be no trust falls, no one will be asked to tell a joke, and nobody has to be funny.” This really lightens the mood of the room. The workshop then proceeds with a series of icebreakers in which students respond to straightforward cues (walk/stop) that become progressively less straightforward (stop when I say “walk”; walk when I say “stop”) and stretching and shadowing exercises. Another series of exercises focuses on the task of building off a main idea—assembling (with their bodies) an abstract sculpture, a machine with noise and motion, a plane, a bridge, a dragon, a butterfly—with a team, and another exercise asks students to come up with seven answers to a question—naming 7 disgusting ice cream flavors or 7 uses for earrings—in rapid succession on the fly to encourage on-the-spot thinking. 

All of these activities are done in rotating groups and partnerships, and are intended, says Zell “to push students to the edges of their comfort zones to learn a little bit more about themselves, their peers, and problem-solving through improv techniques.”

students and professor antaki participates in improv workshop
Professor James Antaki (right) with students at the improvisation workshop held at the Meinig School in October 2021.

At the end of the workshop students reflect on how the exercises connect to classes or life, with takeaways like “the first thought in your mind is normally the most boring,” “it's O.K. to make mistakes,” “the best ideas come from building on others,” and “you can solve any problem with any solution.” These are all important revelations that students can apply not only toward their year-long project, but also toward life in general. The overarching tone of the workshop is to think outside of the box and to make mistakes unapologetically.

Justin Zell of SCIT leads students in improvisation warm-up exercises
Justin Zell of Steel City Improv Theater (in black face mask) leads students in improvisation warm-up exercises.

“BME students never cease to amaze me with their inventiveness once they are warmed up and feel safe to try new things without fear of failure or judgment,” said Zell of this, the second time he’s worked with Meinig School students. “I had a great time with [this] class. Professor Antaki always 'sets the table' well before I arrive by opening up his students to the principles of improvisation that we explore in the session. This, in my humble opinion, is the next frontier in business now that we are in the Information Age. People need practice 'Yes Anding' ideas without judging themselves or others.”

Students in the BME Masters of Engineering (M.Eng.) program also got to experience the workshop during Zell's visit.

Watch workshop recap video.

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