Creative Thinking and The Process of Science: Shouldn’t we be using this Approach in our Courses?

By Erica Kosal, Director of LSFY and Associate Teaching Professor of Biology

Students, and perhaps the general public (if I use my family and some of my friends who run away if any science topic is brought up), tend to think about science as a formula-based, objective, step-by-step discipline. The steps of the scientific method have been taught to them for most of their K-12 academic lives and the idea of objectively studying the world in a mechanistic way is entrenched. The notion that scientists use critical thinking in their disciplines “fits” and students seem to soak up discussions about scientific methodology as long as it follows the “rules” that they have internalized. When introducing the role that creativity plays in science, I have seen the confusion on my students’ faces and disbelief. Still, after discussions in class about designing experiments and considerations of the same observations leading to different perspectives with different angles to study and test, students quickly realize just how creative scientists are.

But it is tough to shed the internal dogma they have come to know well – creativity is for the artists, the musicians, the writers. Designing, writing, painting and composing shows creativity. Their logic follows that only select individuals are special and creative. Many believe that you are born with the creative gift and therefore that creativity cannot be cultivated. These same students believe that devising hypotheses and determining how to test these hypotheses are not ways of being creative; it doesn’t fit the mold of what they think creativity is.

One of the core classes required of all students who enter NC State in the LSFY program (Life Sciences First Year) is LSC 101: Critical & Creative Thinking in the Life Sciences. I have seen students’ initial discount of creativity in the life sciences turn and blossom into the reality that scientists are very creative people. By focusing on experimental design, probing students to think about developing hypotheses, asking what the next step might be given a set of results, and contemplating considerations about how society influences study design, students quickly see the role creativity plays in science.

I have been trying to formally assess if the course helps students grow their understanding of and development of creativity over the course of the semester. This is a work in progress; however, it is clear anecdotally that discussing experimental design is helpful and discussing the process of “doing” science is vital. There are specific exercises I use with my students during class such as applying the Intellectual Standards for Creative Thinking to critiquing endeavors, ideas, and products. There are Design Thinking exercises I use and “SCAMPER” strategies we play with (substitute, combine, add, modify, put to another use, eliminate, rearrange), among other techniques. But it still comes back to students needing to think thoroughly about experimental design and the process of doing science.

Some helpful discussion questions include “Based on these results from the first experiment, what is a follow-up question? How can this be tested?” or “Scientist X got these results and based on what was known from the literature and society from that time, Scientist X knew that Y was possible. How can you blend Y with these results to determine the next logical step to take?” If you give students adequate time to reflect on such questions in a small group and then have a larger class discussion that follows, real synergy and progress can be made in a short time of a semester. This got me thinking about other courses I teach. Why don’t I translate this same experimental design discussion and the analysis of the dynamics of doing science to tackle traditional topics covered in a biology course? Why don’t I have more active consideration of data, scientists, and society and instead why do I tend to focus on the outcome rather than the process?

The process is what we all need to truly learn something. Sure, we can memorize something for an exam or list steps of a process, but when asked weeks later or when asked to apply this in a meaningful way, it becomes fuzzier. If you can relate course content to something relevant to a student, when there is context, when you have to think through a situation to come up with a creative solution, you are more likely to internalize and store it in long-term memory for retrieval later.

So, although my specific quest focuses on creativity, it is more than that – it also moves into the engaging process aspect in the classroom. E. Paul Torrance, who was a leader of the scholarship of creativity, published copious works showing creativity growth was accessible to everyone (and at the time in the 1960’s he was criticized by many for this view). He argued that creativity was not just for some people, but for all, and that creativity was essential to solve problems and survive in any given situation. Given the problems we have to solve in the world today and the ever-changing complexity we find ourselves in, cultivating creativity is a must to help us survive. When it comes to teaching and helping our students problem-solve, we should grow our creativity in the classroom. It follows that when we are creative and use the process of science as the backdrop context to teach science, our students should learn more effectively. It’s time to put on our own creativity hat and consider how we can revise our courses to help students see the process work in our disciplines.

Wondering how to cultivate students’ higher order skills in creative thinking? View practical resources about the critical and creative thinking process and ways to assess it from the TH!NK Program.

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