Creating 21st century thinkers: COPH faculty, students present at critical and creative thinking conference

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It’s not enough that students graduate college with higher-level knowledge. To be employable and effective in today’s world, they also need to be creative and critical thinkers.

To that end, two USF College of Public Health (COPH) professors, Drs. Alison Oberne and Anna Torrens Armstrong, both alums of the college, traveled to USF St. Petersburg in October to present at the inaugural Critical and Creative Thinking at the Core Conference. They were also joined by graduate student Shawna Green and undergraduate Jake Bamforth.

The two-day conference, attended by area colleges, focused on ways to infuse critical and creative thinking into curriculums. In a workshop entitled, “From Classroom Skills to Career Success: Foundations in Critical Thinking,” Oberne, director of the college’s BSPH program, discussed how she embeds critical thinking skills into her “Foundations of Evaluation Research and Public Health” course.

Alison Oberne, PhD, presents a workshop at USF St. Petersburg’s inaugural Critical and Creative Thinking at the Core conference. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Oberne)

“Students find that one of the most challenging components of the course is defining who their sample will be for a research study,” said Oberne. “So I give them a research question and a focus population, such as all USF undergraduate students. But even though it’s been narrowed, the entire USF undergrad population is huge. They can’t survey every student. So they have to problem solve and figure out who are the most appropriate students to include in the study. Should they look at college students who have jobs, who are living on campus, who are of traditional age or older?”

COPH senior Jake Bamforth presented a poster on how he used critical and creative thinking to develop a study on food insecurity among college students. His was the only undergraduate poster selected for presentation at the conference.

Oberne stands with Jake Bamforth and his poster on food insecurity among college students. (Photo courtesy of Oberne)

“I used critical thinking to determine what students to include in my research and what type of study would best answer my research question,” said Bamforth. “I determined that a quantitative study using full-time college students at USF Tampa who are 18-25 years old and not living with a parent or guardian would be an ideal population to research. USF’s diverse student body may tell us something new about food insecurity, and a quantitative study can be used to generalize about all college students in the United States.”

In addition to critical thinking, Bamforth used creative reasoning to avoid jargon when developing his survey questions.

“I had to ensure all study participants understood my survey questions, so I didn’t use public health terms such as ‘food insecurity.’ Without the use of critical and creative thinking, I wouldn’t have been able to develop a well-thought-out research proposal.”

Armstrong, a COPH assistant professor of community and family health, presented on work she’s done with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Program that highlights the importance of using visuals to increase student engagement with material and content.

“When we use powerful visuals, we tap into the visual cortices in the brain that are helpful for retention and retrieval of information,” said Armstrong.  “So if we can link our content with visual representations, students are more likely to retain and more easily retrieve information when needed. This is important, as I really think for students to move to higher order work (analysis, critical thinking) they need to really know the material.”

Anna Torrens Armstrong, PhD, (left) with doctoral candidate Shawna Green. (Photo courtesy of Oberne)

Doctoral candidate Shawna Green, working with Armstrong, took the theme of powerful visuals one step further and presented “Photovoice: A creative learning experience for undergraduates that can impact campus policy.” Photovoice is the use of photographs to give a vulnerable population a voice.

“Photos allow us to see what the world is like through another group’s eyes,” said Green, who is concentrating in behavioral health. “For example, those in wheelchairs have taken photos of cars inappropriately parked in handicap spaces, or of shopping carts blocking paths and ramps leading to stores. These are things we don’t think about, but they give a population a voice and make others think of their own actions. Photovoice projects can be particularly effective, especially with the technology we have, because they let policymakers who are not necessarily on the frontlines see what does and doesn’t work in practice.”

Acknowledging that creative and critical thinking have taken a backseat in many areas of academia, Armstrong sees the need for change.

“The very act of thinking critically and creatively pushes us to ask questions that lead to answers to complex issues,” she explained. “And public health is incredibly complex. Critical and creative thinking can stimulate students’ curiosity, and that can make them better and more effective public health professionals.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health