The Best of College

A unique UT program aims to give freshmen the quintessential university experience.

The Best of College

Deciding on a major and, naturally, the trajectory of your entire life, is a daunting proposition at age 18. To help students find the right path, UT’s School of Undergraduate Studies came up with an idea: Challenge rock-star faculty to develop intimate workshop courses about whatever they want—the dream topic they’ve always wanted to teach—and give freshmen an in-depth look at a subject they may have otherwise overlooked. Faculty members say the format has helped spark intellectual conversation and become an accessible way for students to acquire valuable learning skills like critical thinking, writing, and oral communication. They’re called Signature Courses. The topics range from vampires and espionage to infectious diseases, and have delightfully thought-provoking titles like “The Discovery of Freedom” and “How to Change the World.”

Bill Powers himself has regularly taught a Signature Course during his time as president of the university. Each fall, he and a small group of students have met in his office in the Tower for a course on literature and philosophy. The goal, as he writes in the foreword to Signature Course Stories: Transforming Undergraduate Learning, is to try and get their arms around some of life’s biggest questions.

“I wanted to make sure we were giving students that life-changing experience so many of us associate with our university years,” Powers writes, “giving them the magic that is college at its best.”

That book, which chronicles the success of the program, is a collection of essays written by faculty and students about how the courses have profoundly affected their careers. The following is an essay written by Ian B. Robertson, BS ’12, who took architecture professor Lawrence Speck’s “Creative Problem Solving” course.

—Dorothy Guerrero


Creativity is not being born a genius. Creativity is for everyone. Creativity is not merely a flash in the pan. It is a process that can be applied again and again with similar results.

These are bold statements, and statements that challenge much of what we learn from childhood about creativity and problem solving. Yet these statements are well-founded and supported by professor Larry Speck’s signature course. It is a course that made a huge impact on me, showing me that creativity is well within my own abilities and talents—a skill that can be developed and then honed.

In essence, it is a course that challenges students to look inside themselves and find the creative spark, no matter how small, and fan it into something larger. During my first year at the University of Texas, I felt that my own creative spark had dwindled. Coming from a creative high school experience, I found early challenges with my transition to a traditional college experience. When I heard about Professor Speck’s class, I suspected that it was an opportunity to rediscover that distant part of myself.

The course was built around a series of case studies about problem-solving. By looking closely at Jonas Salk’s cure for polio, or Joel Salatin’s sustainable farming methods, we were learning more than just the facts of their lives. We were also using these studies to learn generative processes we could use in our own lives, on our own problems. Tools like brainstorming, idea mapping, and cross-disciplinary research were broken down in a way that made them accessible and repeatable.

By practicing these tools, I watched students from a wide range of majors transition from hesitant skepticism to energetic confidence about their own creative abilities, and those of their classmates. This confidence showed all of us one last creative tool, and one of the most powerful: community.

Professor Speck developed that sense of community from the get-go, showing us its power when applied to problems. His object was to show our class that creative people hardly work alone, and that most of them engage with some form of community that pushes their ideas to new heights. He encouraged the formation of study groups and reading partners, challenging us to apply the lessons to our lives and to the lives of those around us. Once the alchemy of friendships, case studies, and personal projects started brewing, the material began to click even more. We realized creativity was a force anyone could harness, and its potential could be multiplied by teamwork.

Years later I still marvel at the power of creativity and community in my own life. Not only do I continue to use the same creative processes I learned in that class, I have since worked with friends from that very class on personal projects outside of school and my post-graduate life. Speck’s passion for creativity, community, and the students in his life inspires me to this day. The results in my life manifest both in my problem solving abilities, as well as in my relationships.

Signature Course Stories was edited by Lori Holleran Steiker, with a foreward by William C. Powers Jr. and photography by Trent M. Lesikar.



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