One of the things we discuss in the classroom is the importance of keeping your hands busy outside of the classroom... and that all sorts of disciplines can infuse a new sense of inspiration (or purpose) to design or design study.
For me, it's making things... and material investigation. We've talked at length about finding new materials in the most unusual places: from office supply shops to home-repair centers...
One of the materials I've been using lately is called Paperstone (or Richlite)... It's a paper/epoxy composite that looks a lot like black illustration board in the 1/8in thickness and a lot like honed granite in the 3/4in thickness. It's rock-hard, yet can be cut with woodshop tools. I have begun to include it in the furniture that I make — and this semester I made awards for the students out of some of the extra bits. It makes a great topping material to the multi-ply I use (pic below).
Another new material is a wood-plastic composite from CaliBamboo called BamDeck. What first struck me about the products is that it is the only product of its type that is not grained to look like wood. It has always seemed odd to me that folks would take plastic and imprint a wood grain on it. The BamDeck material is striated like broom-finished concrete and is quite nice. It's also workable with carbide-tipped tools and takes to machining fairly well.
So far, I've used it to mill a post stand-off, topped a retaining wall and used it for its intended purpose: decking... all with fantastic results. I also expect to work it into a few furniture pieces as well and have plans to use it in the next rev of the ModKatBox since it is impervious to moisture.