At MSU, creativity is not just for the liberal arts departments.
In 1999, Craig Dunn, director of the Communication Program in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, had an idea to bring poetry to his engineering students. In a paper entitled, “The Need for Poetry Contests in Colleges of Engineering” Dunn wrote, “No man is an island, and no field of study can divorce itself from the activities, interests, positive reinforcement of divergent areas of instruction.”
Dunn meant what he wrote and started the College of Engineering Poetry Contest at MSU. Now going into its eighth year, the contest had become a success.
“Writing is helpful for an engineering career. Engineering does not exist without communication. Communication is it. All the disciplines are part of communication, not the other way around. I tell the students to think about the language they’re using, if it’s effective, how the listeners will take it,” Dunn said.
Anywhere from 65 to 150 students participate each year. For judges, Dunn scopes the Engineering Building for help from faculty and staff. The only instructions the judges follow are to read the poetry and judge it in their own way on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best. Then the scores are put into the computer and the poem with the highest score receives first prize. Dunn wants judges to judge poems on what they like and what appeals to them personally.
“We’re not looking for the best of the best, but which one is most liked by the judges,” said Dunn.
A critical point of the contest is to recognize that engineers have many interests that are not science and math-minded. Like many busy college students, the amount of time they get to devote to non-academic interests get pushed aside to the demands of school work. But since the students are asked to do the poetry contest, they can justify it more easily, Dunn said. They give themselves permission to do something other than engineering.
One year the contest even featured a live poetry reading in the lobby where students got up and read their poems on a small stage. Even the workers in Engineering Building’s Sparty store joined in and wrote poems on the spot to perform.
In the past Dunn has encountered students who have felt guilty about pursuing their creative passions while engulfed with school work. Dunn thinks feeling guilty about outside interests is not what engineers should be doing. Dunn says the poetry contest allows students to relax a bit.
“Poetry is a rest. It takes your mind off of everything. The balance of school work and free time is very important to long-term success.”
The contest is open to all MSU students, not just engineers. Past entries are archived and accessible at http://www.egr.msu.edu/~gunn/ along with contest rules.
Even though it may seem like an unusual contest for engineers, Dunn stands by the idea. “It is giving people a chance to do something they might not have done,” he said.