Teaching Creativity in Science

I found an old post (December 2011) on Emory University’s eScience Commons blog about teaching creativity in science. In this post, the author refers to a professor at Emory University who says that more creativity needs to be taught in the undergraduate classes. Admittedly, the foundational classes in science such as Physics, Chemistry, and Calculus are very full of facts and formulas that need to be absorbed. It is crucial for students to get this basic information before they can really start being more creative with the information. The challenge, then, is to introduce more ways of encouraging students to become creative while–at the same time–seeing to it that they are internalizing the facts and formulas they will need in order to pursue higher academic goals (e.g. research and professorships).

At a recent eLearning Community of Practice meeting at S&T (October 14, 2013), one professor remarked that students are often so ingrained that they have to get the “right” answer that they forget they are really being trained in how to ask the “right” question which will hopefully lead them to an answer, if not necessarily the correct answer. After all, science is as much about discarding incorrect theories as it is about finding correct theories–at least until science marches on and the current theory on a topic is superseded by new information. The Standard Model of quantum mechanics is a perfect example of this. A lot of “bad” theories had to be discarded as more about atoms was discovered over time, leading to more and more accurate theories about what goes on at the subatomic level. And many of the discoveries in quantum mechanics required radical ways of looking at the world (Einstein’s theories on relativity perhaps being the most famous). But I digress.

Bloom’s Taxonomy (and its variations) is one way of tracking how well students are performing at different cognitive levels. The lower levels (3 or below) typically track only the most basic levels of understanding of materials. Students simply absorb and regurgitate information. They may apply it, but typically in well-defined scenarios with equally well-defined solutions. Another professor who attended the eLearning Community of Practice meeting showed some of his research indicating how his exam questions measure according to Bloom’s Taxonomy. Almost all questions were at level 3 or less.

The higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are the levels that focus more on analysis, evaluation, and creation. These are the types of activities that should be introduced earlier to the undergraduate students so they are better prepared to take on the more “messy” problems found in upper-level undergraduate projects and graduate programs. After all, one of the main activities of a graduate student (Master’s or Doctoral) is to identify a problem that hasn’t been studied before and come up with a thesis or dissertation that studies the problem and presents finding, thus expanding human knowledge and helping the student become an expert in a particular subject matter area (knowledge is becoming more and more specialized these days).

So what can S&T do to help our students become more creative?

NOTE: On a totally unrelated subject, there are a lot of interesting articles at Emory University’s eScience Commons blog. Check it out!