CMU professor turns to Steel City Improv to make point about ideas

Debra Erdley
| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 11:24 p.m.

Justin Zell was adamant that his plan would work.

His students weren't so sure.

“Be really, really bold and give me your faith that this is going to work out in the end,” the improv master said, barking out orders to a group of befuddled Carnegie Mellon University graduate engineering students a week before final exams.

After six years of college, the 24 students in Professor Jim Antaki's biomedical engineering class were about to get a new kind of education courtesy of Zell, who over the next three hours would put them through the basics of improv, a creative theater-on-the-fly where everything is made up on the spot as actors react to one another.

As the evening wore on, the students would form fantastical human statues of dragons and airplanes, invent magical products, learn to speak gibberish, compose jingles, break the rules and navigate the rapid-fire exchanges required in improvisational theater.

Though such exercises might appear to be little more than stress relief for over-achievers, educators say they could be key to success for students who must tackle seemingly intractable challenges in business, engineering and science.

Antaki hoped that his students would absorb Zell's improv commandments that “a mistake is a gift,” “any idea is a good idea” and “all ideas are gifts.”

Keith Sawyer, a professor who studies the psychology of creativity at the University of North Carolina, is a fan of improv. He sees its principles moving into mainstream education as schools redesign curriculum for a changing world.

“Here at UNC we have an improv actor and coach who teaches a class to our MBA students that is incredibly popular,” Sawyer said.

Engineering schools, he said, are beginning to emphasize creativity as they update curricula. One of the newest, the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, was founded in Massachusetts in 1997 with the goal of fostering creativity and entrepreneurship.

Taking chances can be tough for engineers who are schooled to seek the right answer or calculation, Antaki said. He'd like his experiment with improv to become part of the engineering curriculum.

“They need to learn to make mistakes intelligently. The principles of improv are to promote teamwork, support your partner and don't be afraid to fail,” he said.

One student, Brett Bergman, 27, said he came away with an appreciation for the principles of improv. As an engineer, he said, it's easy to experience “analysis paralysis,” or the fear of making decisions with limited information.

“I think too many engineers fail to think of vibrantly creative solutions, for fear of criticism,” he said.

Audrey Russo, president and CEO of Pittsburgh Technology Council, said such training enhances creativity and can help entrepreneurs hone communication skills to pitch concepts.

“This kind of work has to be continuous, and it can't be just one event. I've been thinking about how we embed this to people who are beyond school,” Russo said.

Carnegie Mellon Professor Yu li Wang, who chairs the department of biomedical engineering, is impressed with how the students interacted with Zell.

“We're trying to think about what we can do to turn students into innovators,” he said.

Zell studied and worked in improv for a decade before founding Steel City Improv with his wife, Kasey Daley. He has held classes for freshman business students, lawyers and even tech moguls.

“We teach people not just to be good actors but to be good people, to listen like they've never listened before, to commit to their choices and the sense that anything is possible,” Zell said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.



Show commenting policy