Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Creativity: Science education's missing link

By Carol Clark

Memorizing facts and formulas may be the foundation of a good science education, but creativity also needs to be taught and encouraged in undergraduate classes, says Robert DeHaan, professor emeritus in Emory's School of Medicine.

An editorial by DeHaan, entitled “Teaching Creative Science Thinking,” will appear in the journal Science on December 16. DeHaan’s career as a researcher of cell biology, a professor of medicine and a science advisor for educational studies spans five decades.

“It’s unfortunate that we often teach science as if science only deals with neat problems with a single answer, and a single path to get to that answer,” DeHaan says. “But when you walk into a lab, you don’t know what problems you’re going to face, or how you’re going to arrive at solutions.”

Creativity is the most complex and abstract of the higher-order cognitive skills, according to the classification system known as Bloom’s taxonomy of learning skills. Other higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and abstraction are also key to solving ill-structured, or “messy,” problems in science, DeHaan says.

And yet, he adds, a recent national sample of 77 undergraduate life science courses, taught by 50 different instructors, found that fewer than 1 percent of the items on tests and quizzes required students to use any of these higher-level skills.

DeHaan advocates moving beyond just lecturing in science classes and getting students engaged in active learning modes that foster peer-to-peer reasoning and creative thinking for complex problem solving.

“Students need to be reminded that there may be other ways to view a problem than the way it is presented,” DeHaan says. “And they need to learn to generate many ideas about possible solutions before beginning to evaluate which of them may be best.”

Quick, how many uses can you think of for a plastic bottle? It's a simple way to test your creativity. Click here to see one of the most creative answers ever to this question, currently hanging on the Emory Quad.

Creative science thinking should not only be taught, it should be tested, he adds. A simple method, based on the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, is to ask students to list all of the possible uses for an object such as a plastic bottle.

When DeHaan gives this problem to students, their lists range from four or five ideas to dozens. “Most of the ideas will be similar, but when you get a response that is limited to 5 percent or less in a group of 100 students, that’s an original idea,” he says.

More research is needed, DeHaan says, to find effective strategies to prepare the next generation of scientists for the complex, interdisciplinary problems that they will need to tackle.

“If more students learn to think like creative scientists, it will be worth the effort,” he concludes.

How a hike in the woods led to a math 'aha'
Cultivating brains for science
Math's in your cards, so deal with it
An idea that shifts with wind, water and light

Credits: Top and middle photos by Bottom photo by Carol Clark.

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