Stanford students in creativity course help inmates envision life after prison

How do you unlock latent creativity? Just talk to students at Stanford who have taken the course Management Science and Engineering 177: Creativity Rules.

Every class begins with warm-up exercises that can look like a makeshift conga line or disco dance-off. Then, with bodies and minds limbered, students learn creative problem-solving tools for tackling challenges of all sizes and scopes.

The course is offered to undergraduates in the fall, and last quarter, the class project took students to a place as different from the Stanford campus as one could imagine: San Quentin State Prison.

The class collaborated with The Last Mile, a nonprofit organization that works at San Quentin to help inmates develop fundamental business skills and entrepreneurial acumen. Students in MS&E 177 met with these men and taught them skills learned in class. In addition, the student teams spent the quarter understanding the challenges faced by newly released inmates and developed innovative ideas on how to improve the transition from prison to freedom.

Creativity Rules: Stanford Management Science and Engineering 177 from Stanford Tech Ventures Program on Vimeo.

“People are excited to be in this course,” said YALE GOLDBERG, a science, technology and society major who took Creativity Rules last fall. “I learned more about myself in this class than I ever would’ve imagined possible.”

“By putting their classroom learnings into practice, the students realized how relevant the skills are and gained important insights about ways they can contribute to society,” said JAYE BUCHBINDER, a management science and engineering master’s student who took the course last academic year and recently served as a teaching assistant.

The concept of recidivism became very real when the students visited San Quentin. They spoke with a man from South Central Los Angeles who, when asked what he would do when he was released, said that he would have no choice but to return to his crime-ridden neighborhood. That’s where his family and friends were, and besides, he had no income or savings to draw upon to move elsewhere.

Buchbinder said, “It really changed the mindset of the students from ‘this is just a class project,’ to ‘wow, this may change someone’s life.'”

Through class discussions and highly engaging activities, students learn to tap the creative thinker within. “You’re not learning equations and you’re not learning theories,” Buchbinder said. “Instead, we’re providing toolkits for innovation and creativity.”

The course is presented by the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, the Entrepreneurship Center in the School of Engineering, and offered through the school’s Department of Management Science and Engineering. It is taught at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or, and its lessons benefit students from across the entire campus.

The course is interdisciplinary in the truest sense of Stanford’s definition and educational mission. It is taught by MS&E Professor of the Practice TINA SEELIG, author of several books on creativity and innovation, and ALETA HAYES, a lecturer in Stanford’s Department of Theater and Performance Studies who has spent many years as an educator of the arts, as well as a dancer and choreographer.

“The class focuses on critical problem-solving skills, such as reframing problems, challenging assumptions, and connecting and combining ideas,” said Seelig, who most recently wrote Insight Out: Get Ideas Out of Your Head and Into the World. “These are tools that they will use, not just in the projects in the class, but hopefully throughout their entire lives.”

Students are taught how to build innovative teams, how to generate unexpected solutions and how to test their ideas. In the most literal sense, Hayes helps make these lessons sink in through the physical activities she develops and leads at the start of class.

“One of the things we talk about at Stanford is how do we create the whole student,” Hayes said. “This course is doing that, with both what Tina and I do, by creating a person who can go out into the world and become themselves in different situations.”

The San Quentin project was designed to show the students how powerful the skills they learned are and give them a chance to teach what they learned to the men behind bars. Even though the inmates are learning the skills needed to start their own ventures, many of them still have time to serve.

However, these skills are pivotal in unlocking a promise for the future.

“They were really, really inspiring,” Goldberg said, “and it made you really want to help, and made you want to change the system and think of ways to give these people a second chance.”