Lyam Gabel and William Lowry

Professors Propose Innovative Course That Utilizes Artificial Intelligence to Overcome Common Barriers to Creativity

The proposal by theater professors Lyam Gabel and William Lowry was selected as part of a Lehigh-led contest soliciting original ideas for leveraging artificial intelligence.

Given the recent rapid explosion of generative artificial intelligence (AI) in the mainstream, there is a concern that this evolving technology will yield a negative outcome: reducing or replacing human creativity. Two professors in Lehigh’s theater department are using these tools for good: to enhance student creativity.

At the start of the 2023 spring semester, Provost Nathan Urban issued a call to action to the Lehigh community. He invited anyone on campus to participate in a contest and submit a video or podcast that addressed generative AI in education.

In their entry, contest winners Lyam Gabel, assistant professor of theater (specializing in acting and directing) and William Lowry, associate professor of theater (focusing on design) addressed the question of how they might use generative AI to enhance student learning at Lehigh–a natural fit for them, since they both have integrated AI into their coursework.

Energized by the potential applications of AI in both of their disciplines, together the professors proposed a co-taught first-year seminar in the College of Arts & Sciences that delves into art and AI. The proposed course will not only use AI tools for creation, but also explore the ways in which AI can further be used to enhance student learning. The professors hope to use this technology to bring about new forms of art and innovative ways of thinking about artistic inspiration and expression.

Gabel and Lowry have been using the AI platforms ChatGPT and Midjourney to spur creative development and student responses from both textual and visual perspectives.

“The blank page can be terrifying for artistic creation,” Lowry said, “so we’ve been using AI as a tool to take the first step as well as develop high-level skills, critique, and reflection on what is generated.”

Gabel used ChatGPT for an assignment in the playwriting course, directing students to utilize the platform to assist in the creation of concepts, dialogue, and other elements of playwriting.

“Because students were able to take their focus off of the mechanics of playwriting, which were giving them some anxiety, they could fully focus on their ideas,” Gabel said.

Gabel noted that the students quickly realized AI was not an “easy fix;” they dedicated time to edit and restructure what ChatGPT generated. However, the early-stage introduction of the ChatGPT tool removed some of the initial creative barriers and allowed students to focus on ideas, editing, and high-level thinking at the beginning of the semester–a process that Gabel says usually unfolds later in the course.

Lowry used image generation artificial intelligence via Midjourney in the first-year seminar, Geek Theater, and the Lighting Design course. In the Geek Theater seminar, students drafted a monologue about an alternate version of Lehigh. They used Midjourney to create visual representations of their fictional worlds and to supplement their monologues and performances.

“Instead of trying to find images online that were relevant, they were able to coax the machine toward the direction they needed,” Lowry explained, which helped bring their visions to life for their peers.

In the Lighting Design course, Lowry turned to Midjourney at an early point in the process by encouraging students to create inspirational research.

“Midjourney can be used for inspiration on how a student wants to approach a particular moment, and they have to use their knowledge of the discipline to figure out how to enact that,” Lowry said.

In a message from Urban introducing the contest, Urban noted that students are going to be living and working in a world where the use of these tools will be common, and employees will be expected to be knowledgeable on the tools at their disposal in order to produce the best possible work. He encouraged Lehigh faculty to embrace these tools and teach students to use them effectively and ethically.

A small working group reviewed a pool of submissions and, as contest winners, Gabel and Lowry each received a grant intended to cover the cost to travel to a meeting or conference focused on educational innovation or education technology.

The winners were announced during an Innovation in Education event on campus. The comprehensive workshop delved into topics such as preparing for a competency-based future, AI trends in education and models for the future of higher education.

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