Inventor Spotlight: Krithi Iyer

Our featured student inventor this time is Krithi Iyer, who came up with an idea to make a temperature sensing shoe. Her invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. She designed the shoe as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Krithi talking about her idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m Krithi Iyer from Redmond Middle School. I am currently in 7th grade and enjoy coming up with new ideas. Usually my ideas take the form of artwork, however I often come up with various inventive ideas.  

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention was a ‘Thermochromic Shoe’, a shoe that could change its internal temperature. A problem I usually encountered was super cold, or super sweaty feet. This shoe can either cool or heat your foot. As the temperature changes, the color of the thermochromic paint also changes, a color sensor inside of the shoe will then sense the color and either heat up the shoe or cool it down based on the color of the paint. The shoe can also grow or shrink, to fit your foot size and to allow more air circulation inside.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

My prototype worked partially. I wasn’t able to make the color sensor or the heating and cooling system, but I was able to show how thermochromic paint reacted to the temperature outside. I hope that one day I will be able to build this shoe. I enjoyed the experience especially since I enjoyed painting with the thermochromic paint.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

Probably the most significant thing I learned from this camp was what thermochromic paint was. I was previously unaware such a thing existed, but I found it to be a tool that could be used to solve many problems—smaller or larger than a sweaty foot. I also learned the stages of becoming an inventor and how they come up with and execute their ideas.

Who is your favorite inventor and why?

My favorite inventor is Leonardo Da Vinci. He not only created several inventions such as the prototype for a plane, but he was also an artist. His inventions have greatly shaped our world today and I give my thanks to him.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up, or maybe even now, I want to find cures to diseases. Medicine has usually always intrigued me and learning about new diseases enthralls me, or sometimes scares me.  

What will you be using your prize money for?

My prize money will be used for 3 things. First, I am going to donate 20% of it to charity. 10% I am going to save, and the remaining 70% will be used for a business fair I plan to participate in.  I will use the money to buy the materials I need to make my merchandise.

 

Congratulations Krithi for winning the award! We wish you the best in your upcoming business fair, and other creative endeavors in the future.

Inventor Spotlight: Aaron Liu

Our featured student inventor this time is Aaron Liu, who came up with an idea to make a temperature sensing food bowl. His invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. He designed the bowl as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Aaron talking about his idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Aaron and I was born in Washington in 2008. I am in fifth grade and go to Ben Franklin Elementary school. In my free time I enjoy playing baseball.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is the thermochromic bowl and it works when a hot substance is placed with in the bowl. The bowl will then change colors.

How did you come up with the idea?

I came up with the idea when I realized that I hurt my tongue a lot while eating hot foods and a bowl that changes colors when something hot was in it was a good idea.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

The prototype did not work at first because the plastic was too thick. So I put paint on the brims instead of the whole bowl and it worked. The experience was good.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

I learned a lot but some things I learned are how to use a website to make 3d images, and how thermochromic paint works.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

My favorite memory was when I won jeopardy on the last day of camp.

Who is your favorite inventor and why?

My favorite inventor is Thomas Edison. He is my favorite inventor because he invented the light bulb and pioneered the way for the different forms of electronic light we have now.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up I want to solve global warming.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I want to save the prize money to buy a arcade game.

 

Congratulations Aaron for winning the award! Solving global warming is a great goal and we wish you the best as you apply your creativity to solve future problems.

How Rewards Impact Learning And Motivation

In an interesting study to understand the relationship between motivation and learning, researchers gave elementary students a reading comprehension task. One group was explicitly told that they were going to be tested and graded on what they learned at the end of the activity, while the others were not.

The results of the experiment revealed a lot about the interplay between learning, motivation and rewards. Students who were told that they would be tested and graded, found the reading task less interesting and felt more stress compared to the others. Their assessment afterwards also showed an interesting pattern. They performed as well as the other groups, but only when limited to rote information. Conceptual integration of the material was poorer than the other groups. In addition, one week after the experiment, they had forgotten more information compared to other groups! As the researchers concluded, “It is not unreasonably speculative to argue that grades as traditionally used in schools often result in the perception of an external locus of causality, produce pressure, and result in force-fed, poorly integrated and maintained learning.

So how does learning get affected by motivation and rewards, like grades?

Learning can happen in multiple ways. Autonomous learning, where there is no directive to learn something specific, happens all the time and might even be the biggest source of learning. This type of learning, also called undirected learning, is triggered by curiosity and interest and is associated with lower negative emotional states. However, since this type of learning can’t be managed, we’ll focus on directed learning, where there is a specific set of material that needs to be learned and assimilated.

Students can be directed to learn in two ways:

  • Controlling, where the control comes from external mechanisms like grades or evaluations.
  • Noncontrolling, which uses approaches that tap into students’ need for autonomy and self-determination.

The issue with the controlling approach is that it leads to inferior learning outcomes compared to the noncontrolling approach. The reason behind this is better explained through achievement goal theory of motivation.

According to the achievement goal theory, people expend different levels and quality of cognitive self-regulation depending on the purpose of the goal. Cognitive self-regulation refers to how deliberate one is in the learning process and includes using different strategies, or planning and using resources effectively. What determines the level of cognitive self-regulation is the purpose behind the goal, which could be performance or learning based.

Performance Goals

Performance goals, also known as ego-goals, are driven primarily by a need to outperform others in order to increase one’s status. Performance goals are positively associated with more superficial, rote learning and not with deep learning. Performance orientation further comes in two flavors – performance/approach and performance/avoidance. Performance/approach is when students are aiming to outperform their peers. Students with this orientation do end up spending considerable effort and using superior study strategies. Performance/avoidance students want to avoid failure so as not to look less competent compared to their peers, and therefore put in less effort and avoid challenging work.

This is where class incentives or rewards, like grades, also come into play. When rewards are scarce, like when only the top few students get the highest grade, it creates a competitive environment where the focus changes from learning a concept to finding ways to outperform other students.

Students in the performance/avoidance orientation fare the worst since the incentive structure does not give them any reason to learn. Instead, they use strategies like procrastination which provides an explanation of their poor performance without being perceived incompetent (if the student only studies on the last day, they are not expected to do well and it isn’t a reflection of their ability).

Learning Goals

Learning goals, also known as mastery goals, are driven by a need to improve one’s competency irrespective of how others are doing. Related to this is the growth mindset, or the belief that one can learn and become smarter by putting in effort. Learning orientation is positively associated with deep-level processing, higher cognitive self-regulation, and pride and satisfaction in success.

Research has shown some promising directions to change grades and reward structure to create a better learning environment. This includes permitting students to work for any grade they want by accomplishing more, and using mastery based grading which focuses on whether one finally mastered a concept regardless of failures along the way.

 

Our current educational system has often been compared to a factory model where students are expected to learn the same content at the same pace as others in their age group. However, there is an additional dimension – extrinsic-focused scarce rewards – that makes the educational system mirror a corporate environment. Unfortunately, such rewards encourage performance goals in both systems leading to poorer learning, higher stress and less satisfaction.

Extrinsic rewards and performance goals work can be effective in limited ways where the task is simple or algorithmic. For more complex and creative work, a learning orientation becomes critical. However, nurturing a learning and growth mindset cannot happen in a vacuum – it needs a supportive environment to go with it. A poorly designed environment can push people from a learning orientation to that of a ego-focused performance mindset, while a well designed one could enable deep learning, growth and positive emotional well-being.

How Technology Can Improve Deep Learning

In an experiment to evaluate the impact of media on learning, researchers showed volunteers a presentation about the country Mali. Some of the subjects saw a text-only version of the presentation while the others saw a multimedia version that included additional audio-visual content.

After the presentation, the researchers gave all subjects a quiz on the material. The text-only group were able to answer more questions correctly on the quiz compared to the multimedia group. The outcome of this experiment was summarized as, “The text-only readers found it to be more interesting, more educational, more understandable, and more enjoyable than did the multimedia viewers, and the multimedia viewers were much more likely to agree with the statement ‘I did not learn anything from this presentation’ than were the text-only readers.”

Technology has undoubtedly made a big impact in education. Apps and games that teach specific reading and math skills have shown to improve learning outcomes, and productivity apps have made research and collaboration so much more easier in the classroom.

However, technology doesn’t just provide us with tools to learn specific skills or be productive, it also actively changes the way we think and process information.

And quite often, these changes inadvertently end up being detrimental to learning in some ways. Professor Patricia Greenfield explains, “Although the visual capabilities of television, video games, and the Internet may develop impressive visual intelligence, the cost seems to be deep processing: mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.

Inappropriate or overuse of technology can significantly impair learning, by breaking attention and interrupting the learning process. Our brains contain two types of memory – short-term and long-term. Long-term memory, which can hold information for a long periods of time, is the seat of understanding where complex schemas and patterns that give us meaning are held. Short term memory on the other hand is fragile – it can hold information for only a few seconds. One type of short term memory, called the working memory, is what we use when we have to retain partial results as we work through a math problem or follow a sequence of steps. However, working memory, unlike long-term memory, is small and can hold only a few chunks of information at a time. After the contents of the working memory are processed, they can be encoded in long term memory for future retrieval.

The challenge with this learning process is that since working memory can retain information for only a few seconds (~20 sec), and any distractions in that time interrupt the flow of information to long-term memory. Being able to focus and reflect on concepts for extended periods of time are critical to learning new things.

In addition to inferior learning, poorly designed technology can have other harmful effects.  When the ability to focus on tasks decline, it can lead to feelings of boredom and an increased desire to seek more external stimuli. Time spent with media (television, video games) has been shown to result in ADHD like behavior.

If we want to promote critical and creative thinking, essential for deep learning, we have to unlearn the way technology is designed. Here are some things to pay attention to when designing technology products for use in education that can promote deep learning.

Pay Attention To Passive Switches

Switches are interruptions that result in students switching between different tasks. Passive switches, as opposed to active switches, are those that students don’t initiate themselves. Obvious examples of passive switches are email notifications, chat features, or pop-ups within an app that are meant to help students but inadvertently break their focus.

Less obvious examples of passive switches include using hyperlinks in the text, often with the good intention of providing information to fill the gaps. Unfortunately, hyperlinks also subtly nudge students into clicking before they have had sufficient time to process information, thereby breaking their flow. In one experiment, groups of people were asked to read the same piece online writing with different number of hyperlinks. Results showed that as the number of hyperlinks increased, reading comprehension went down. The researcher explained her findings as, “Reading and comprehension require establishing relationships between concepts, drawing inferences, activating prior knowledge, and synthesizing main ideas. Disorientation or cognitive overload may thus interfere with cognitive activities of reading and comprehension.

Be Less Helpful

In an interesting experiment, researchers gave students a tricky puzzle to solve that involved moving colored balls between boxes based on some rules. One group of students got a helpful version of the software that had on-screen assistance and other cues, while the other group got a bare-bones version with no hints or guidance.

In the early stages, the helpful group outperformed the bare-bones group in how fast they solved the puzzle. However, as the test progressed the bare-bones group got more proficient and was able to solve faster with fewer incorrect moves as compared to the helpful group, which gave clear indication that they were planning ahead and using strategy.

It didn’t just end there. Eight months after running the experiment, the researchers invited the students again and gave them similar puzzles to solve. The group that used the unhelpful version of the software was able to solve the puzzles twice as fast compared to the helpful group.

When help is too easily available, it robs students of the opportunity to think for themselves and build critical and creative thinking skills.

Be Judicious With Media And Visuals

Unnecessary media usage can overload working memory making it harder to process and assimilate knowledge.

In an experiment conducted on college students, researchers showed groups of students a typical CNN broadcast. One group saw the broadcast along with infographics that flashed on-screen and text-crawls on the bottom. The other group saw the simpler version of the same broadcast without any additional infographics or text-crawls. Subsequent testing showed that the multimedia group retained far fewer facts about the news compared to the simpler group. The researchers theorized that the “multimessage format exceeded viewers’ attentional capacity.

Keeping things simple when working with different forms of media works much better from a learning perspective. While different forms of media are good to use individually, using them simultaneously can overwhelm working memory.  

 

To design educational technology we need to carefully assess if the technology or feature encourages students to think and reflect, or does it distract them. When we introduced a team related feature not too long ago, we realized it was working a little too well, to the point of getting in the way of real learning. We decided to remove the feature and will likely introduce it again in a different incarnation, where it improves productivity without being a distraction.

Technology has great potential to improve student learning in different ways, but it requires us to be more mindful of the learning process while designing it.

 

How Gender Stereotypes Harm Cognition

“But we are boys – we like to smash things!”

I groaned, silently, when I heard a group of 4th and 5th graders say this, quite aware that they will likely not successfully complete the challenge I gave them.

As part of understanding how creativity works, our students learn how the brain works as an associative engine, and how combining unrelated ideas can often lead to novel ideas. One exercise we do is “Wacky Inventions” where students pick two random object names from a bag and try to combine them to make an invention idea all in a matter of few minutes.

This group got “wheel” and “hammer” as their two objects, and it’s clear to see how those words quickly triggered gendered associations. The only idea they could come up with was to use the hammer to smash cars. For an idea to be creative it needs to be both novel and useful, but unfortunately even after prompting the students to think of how it would be useful, they couldn’t come up with a useful form. For instance, they could have explored a scenario where a giant hammer is used to smash cars in a junkyard to reduce space. But once the gender stereotype got triggered, it blocked their minds from elaborating or exploring more ideas to successfully complete the challenge.

Their peer group, in contrast, came up with a design to decorate cupcakes evenly. Cupcakes are placed on a rotating wheel and a hammer hits on an icing holder to release the right amount icing at the right time. An idea that is both novel and useful – not bad for a 5 minute challenge!

Strong gender associations are not just bad from a social perspective, they also hinder cognitive thinking, especially creativity.  

Research studies show that for people who identify with opposite gender characteristics, or in other words exhibit androgyny, display higher levels of creativity. This effect has been found to be true for both men and women.

It’s not the physical or superficial aspect of androgyny that is important – it is the psychological androgyny that drives creative behavior. As Scott Barry Kaufman explains, “… all the research suggests that it’s psychological androgyny, not physical androgyny, or stereotypically masculine or feminine displays of behavior, that is associated with creativity.

Psychological androgyny is high for people who are able to embrace traits or characteristics typically associated with different genders. It does not mean that the trait has to have a rational or biological reason to be associated with a particular gender, it just means it is stereotypically associated with that gender. For example, an architect who balances both technical and engineering aspects (typically associated with men) along with aesthetic sensitivity (typically associated with women) will produce more creative work. In more recent times, Steve Jobs, with his knack for technical details and an eye for aesthetic design, was an example of someone with high psychological androgyny.

When stereotypes take over, the ability to think in more flexible and diverse ways, the hallmark of creativity, reduces. Which is unfortunate, because creativity is rapidly becoming the most important skill to possess in the 21st century as less creative jobs are being automated out. Against that backdrop, reducing gender stereotypes isn’t just good socially, it actually makes us smarter and better positioned for success.

Creativity Behind Jugaad Innovation

In 2001, when an earthquake caused extensive damage in rural Gujarat, Mansukh Prajapati, a potter, found his inspiration. Reading the caption, “Poor man’s fridge broken!”, under the picture of a broken earthen clay pot in a newspaper, sparked an idea in him. “Why  not use clay, he thought, to make a real fridge for villagers – one that looks like a typical fridge, but is more affordable and doesn’t need electricity?

Prajapati experimented with different clay designs over several months and ultimately created Mitticool – a refrigerator that doesn’t use electricity and is significantly more affordable for villagers who don’t always have access to electricity. The refrigerator quickly became popular and his company now creates many other clay products.

This kind of innovation – born out of a desire to solve relevant problems in the cheapest way possible – has come to be called Jugaad innovation. Jugaad, a Hindi word, means a resourceful hack using available or frugal resources. Examples of Jugaad innovation abound in many developing countries like India, China and Brazil.

What is fascinating about Jugaad or frugal innovation, is not just the creativity behind it, but also that it is tied closely to reverse innovation. Reverse innovation refers to the trend of innovation from low-income markets entering and disrupting wealthier markets, a change from the typical flow of innovation. Trends show that in the 21st century more innovation, a large part of which is Jugaad innovation, is coming from developing markets with the potential to move into developed markets.

Radjou, Prabhu and Ahuja, who researched frugal innovation and popularized the phrase Jugaad innovation, identified six principles that underlie jugaad that include seeking opportunity in adversity, keeping things simple and thinking flexibly.

While some of the principles relate to having the right mindset, from a cognitive perspective, flexible and simplistic thinking is key to frugal innovation. Some creativity techniques that can help spur frugal thinking are:

Subtraction

While typical innovation adds more features and complexity, frugal innovation works by removing key components and then figuring out a way to make the idea work. For example, I recently gave a challenge to a group of middle schoolers to design a washing machine that doesn’t use electricity. By removing a central part of the product, students were forced to think in different ways to manually rotate a barrel. They came up with several different ideas like connecting the barrel to a stationary bicycle or using a pumping mechanism like that in a salad spinner.

Substitution

Another way to generate low cost solutions is to try and substitute with simpler or cheaper materials. Trying to find a substitute is the other side of the coin to typical divergent thinking. This approach can also lead to ideas that work well enough but at a much lower cost. For example, one student idea for a different challenge was to reuse discarded (and cleaned) socks to make low cost diaper linings.

Jugaad represents the best of creativity – being able to find a solution or a way out despite extreme resource constraints. And developing the skills and mindset for such innovation is becoming increasingly important for companies to solve important problems and stay relevant.

3 Simple Ways To Build Scientific Creativity

In 1911, Elizabeth Kenny, a nurse in Australian Outback, was called upon to take care of a little girl who she thought had infantile paralysis. She wrote to her mentor, Dr. McDonnell, for advice who wired her back with a message to treat “according to the symptoms as they present themselves.”

Not realizing that the girl really had polio, Elizabeth started finding ways to alleviate the symptoms. She noticed that the girl’s muscles were very tense, so she used hot compresses which she theorized would help relax the muscles. The girl found instant relief from the hot compresses and they reduced her muscle spasms. Next, she saw that the girl could barely move her limbs. Once again, she hypothesized that the muscles needed retraining and increased blood flow. So she started a regime of motion therapy and massage (an approach that later evolved into physical therapy). The results were dramatic and the girl recovered and was able to walk again!

In comparison, the conventional approach to treating polio at the time was to immobilize the limbs by attaching splints which pretty much ensured that patients would not be able to fully recover their mobility. Elizabeth went on to treat many more polio patients, despite being rebuffed by the medical establishment. It took the medical community several decades to acknowledge that her methods of treating polio were indeed effective.

Not knowing that she was actually treating polio, turned out to be a blessing for Elizabeth. It led her to create fresh hypotheses based on what she observed, come up with creative techniques and test them.

Most advancements in science came by because of creative leaps in generating hypotheses or designing better experiments. Creativity plays an integral role in all real-world science explorations – from problem finding to generating and testing hypotheses. As psychologists, David Klahr and Kevin Dunbar who proposed the Dual Space Search in Science approach,  explain, “The successful scientist, like the successful explorer, must master two related skills: knowing where to look and understanding what is seen. The first skill – experimental design – involves the design of experimental and observational procedures. The second skill – hypothesis formation – involves the formation and evaluation of theory.

So, how do we build some of this scientific creativity among younger students?

Research in scientific creativity can be viewed as an interaction between general creativity skills and science knowledge and skills. Here are a few simple approaches to build scientific creativity among students.

Problem Finding

Problem finding in general is considered a core aspect of creativity, and it extends to all domains including arts, math and even science. Real-world problem finding is more predictive of creative achievement than standard measures of divergent thinking.

One way to encourage problem finding in science is to have students list problems they want to explore in a science topic. For example, give students an exercise to think of as many research topics as they can, on subjects like the behavior of ants or the growth of plants. The idea is to give them a chance to think of what they already know and discover areas they want to extend their understanding in. 

Hypotheses Generation

The ability to generate many alternative hypotheses is related to success in science. However, research shows that children tend to get stuck focusing on a single hypothesis. One approach to build the ability to generate multiple hypotheses is to present a partially-defined experimental scenario or setup, and ask students to generate as many hypotheses as they can.  For example, give students an adjustable ramp and different balls as the setup to explore connections between different variables like height, weight, speed and time. That could lead to hypotheses around what happens when you roll different weight balls or change the height of the ramp and so on. 

Scientific Imagination

Scientific imagination is one of the key aspects in the scientific creativity model proposed by Hu and Adey. Einstein had often mentioned how imagining himself chasing a beam of light gave him the insights that eventually led to the development of special relativity. The role of such imagination in science, which is different from creative imagination, is now considered valuable.

One way to build scientific imagination is to give students story writing tasks on topics like “what if there was no gravity” or “the sun is losing its light”. The goal isn’t to just write an imaginative story but to get students to use their scientific knowledge to guide their story. 

Asking Meaningful Questions in Science

In early 1820s, the French scientist and mathematician, Joseph Fourier, asked himself a very simple question: what determines the average temperature on Earth? Or in other words, when the Sun’s rays strike the Earth, why doesn’t the Earth keep getting hot?

Asking these questions made Fourier realize that the Earth’s heated surface emits invisible radiation (infrared radiation). And while he did not have the tools then to prove this, he also intuited that the Earth’s atmosphere plays a role in keeping the Earth warm. It took other scientists and their probing questions – like John Tyndall (what is the relation between density of gas and heat absorbed?) and Svante Arrhenius (how strongly is radiation absorbed by carbon dioxide?) – that finally proved that the presence of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases play a crucial role in warming the Earth.

Good questioning has always played a role in leading to creative breakthroughs in pretty much every domain from arts to sciences. It’s a thinking skill that underlies critical, creative and complex problem solving.

Unfortunately, research studies in science have found that not only does the number of questions students ask drop with grade level, fewer students ask questions of high cognitive level.

Simpler questions tend to seek or clarify factual information and are essential to build an understanding of the science topic. However, once there is sufficient familiarity with the topic, higher cognitive level questions can lead to a deeper understanding, creative and inventive applications and even transformation of the field. These “wonderment” questions try to find connections between concepts or extend the area by identifying additional aspects to explore.

Research studies have found that teaching students how to ask good questions can be quite effective. Students who received instruction or were provided a framework to ask research questions were able to generate more higher level questions than those who didn’t.

Model Based Inquiry (MBI), a more authentic way to teach science, also provides a natural way to structure the questioning process. A model, in general, is a representation of bigger system or phenomenon. It describes the different components, the relationships between the components and the mechanisms (that are often hidden) that underlie these relationships.

Another way to look at a model is that it tries to clarify three types of questions – what, how and why. The “what” questions correspond to the different components in the system. The “how” questions correspond to the relationships, or how different components affect each other. Finally, the “why” questions try to get to the bottom of how different relationships work.

All of these questions have the potential of changing the model thereby improving our understanding of the phenomenon. These model-based questions will typically lead to higher level, research questions in science.

Using the scientific model as a starting point to generate more high level questions can be an effective strategy in science education. As Professor Chin, who researches students’ learning approaches is science, says, “As educators, we know that the skill in the art of questioning is essential to teaching well. However, with the emphasis today on active learning, critical and creative thinking, skill in the art of questioning is also critical to learning well.” Using MBI has the potential to make this process more structured and less intimidating in the classroom.

Model Based Inquiry For An Authentic Science Education

During a period of six months in 1821, Michael Faraday conducted a series of well-thought out experiments that broke some of the earlier theories about electricity and resulted in the first electrical motor. A few months before that, Oersted had discovered that electrical current flowing through a wire, could affect the orientation of a magnetic compass nearby. Over several experiments, Faraday showed that the magnetic field produced by the electrical current was circular in nature, and that electricity and magnetism could be used to produce motion.

But equally important is the experiments he chose not to do. For instance, he didn’t run an experiment to see the effect of electricity on the magnet under different light conditions. Why? Because it would not make sense to do so given what scientists knew about the nature of electricity.

The existing models that scientists had about electrical current had nothing to do with light. The prevailing notion of electricity at that time was that it was a material fluid as opposed to an energetic condition and completely independent from magnetism. So the experiments that Faraday designed were carefully constructed to either confirm or refute existing models of electricity and magnetism. And that’s what led him to advance the field of electromagnetism.

Unfortunately, the Scientific Method (TSM) as taught in schools today often misses this finer point.

To do a science fair project students often pick a question from a pre-existing list or construct one hastily with no real rationale based on their understanding of how the system or phenomenon works. The emphasis is on following the steps in the scientific process which effectively makes the whole exercise a guessing game with no deeper learning attached to it.

In a study of science education in schools, researchers looked at how middle school students in a classroom were approaching inquiry experiments on plants. Students came up with several ideas like feeding the plant coke, using various kinds of dyes or different types of soil. However, the teacher never asked why any of those questions make sense.  As the authors explain, “Do these students have any reason to believe (or hypothesize) that the physiology of a plant will respond in particular ways to these features in their environment? Because such questions are arbitrary—i.e., make no sense without the context of at least a beginning model for understanding the phenomenon—then any hypotheses emerging from these questions are likely to be little more than poorly informed guesses.

In fact the most creative parts of science – generating hypotheses, theorizing from observations and designing experiments – get lost in the traditional approach of strictly following the scientific method.

So what exactly is Model Based Inquiry (MBI)? Using MBI allows students to developdefensible explanations of the way the natural world works”, and it uses four kinds of conversations (often in an iterative fashion):

  • Organizing Prior Information: Without knowing something about a subject, or in other words without a starting model, constructing any hypothesis is like a shot in the dark. So the first step is to list out any information you already have – what the different components and elements are and how they related to each other.
  • Generating a Testable Hypothesis: Once students have an initial model, the next step is to generate hypotheses that are grounded in the model. The idea is to generate competing hypotheses to test specific aspects of the model, that can help deepen understanding of the underlying concept.
  • Seeking Evidence: This part of the conversation is around figuring out what kinds of data to collect to test the model, which can then be used to support an argument.
  • Constructing a Scientific Argument: The final conversation which is often missing in practice, is to tie it back to the model to support or refute specific claims about the model.

While at a high level this may look similar to the scientific method, the focus on the model during the process makes a big difference.

The scientific method, while being a very useful tool for structured thinking, has the side effect of oversimplifying science in education and going further away from how real scientists actually reason and think in science. Incorporating MBI has the potential to change how students relate to science and engage them at a deeper level.  

Cognitive Underpinnings of Creative Thinking

50,000 years ago humans shared the land with other hominins like the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. But somehow, over the course of the next 30,000 years, every other hominin species went extinct while the modern day humans saw huge growth and advancement.

Some people point to the development of language and tools that gave us a Darwinian edge. But evidence of language and tools, some of which were fairly sophisticated, have been found in Neanderthals and the other hominins. So what made us special?

According to Thomas Suddendorf, professor and author, what set us apart was not language or tools, rudimentary forms of which exist in other animals, but our ability to do open-ended imagination and make connections between different concepts. This enabled us to do mental “time travel”, going back in time and in the future, and allowed us to foresee and plan for our survival. In addition, making connections allowed us to find novel and interesting solutions to problems that we faced.

From a cognitive perspective, our brain allows us to voluntarily think of a concept which then triggers another concept, which in turn triggers the next one and so on, leading to a stream of thought, something that likely doesn’t exist in other animals. As Professor Liane Gabora explains, “With this ‘self-triggered recall and rehearsal loop’ we could now activate and re-activate visions and dreams, such that with each successive conception of them they were looked at from a different angle, embedded a little more firmly in the constraints of reality as we know it, and potentially turned into a form in which they could be realized.

This cognitive ability is the direct result of how our brain stores information associatively, and is the reason why humans are able to come up with novel and creative ideas.

Think about how a computer stores information. To store the word “apple” in computer memory, each word is broken down to its letters and each letter in turn is converted to its binary code and stored. For example, the binary code for “a” is “01100001”, for “p” is “01110000” and so on. That’s not how human brains store information.

Human brains store each concept as a whole, connected to other concepts. So the word “apple” is stored as a concept by itself and is linked to other concepts with different kinds of links. So “apple” might be connected to “fruit” by a thing to category link, to “red” by a thing to property link, or “rash” by a cause and effect link if someone is allergic to apples. These links have different strengths in the brain so the dominant link for one person might be apple to red, but apple to fruit for someone else.

When you consciously think of an idea, your brain automatically activates some of the connecting ideas and brings them into your consciousness, leading to a stream of thought.

This also explains why it is sometimes hard to think of new ideas or solutions. As we think about a problem, some of these links get reinforced and strengthened making it hard to change perspective or think in a different direction. In other words, “These same pathways, however, also become the mental ruts that make it difficult to reorganize the information mentally so as to see it from a different perspective.

The associative nature of the brain also comes into play when it encounters ideas that are not related. To see how this works, look at the two words below:

                          Bananas                            Vomit

If you are like most people, the moment you read the two words, your brain automatically tried to connect the unrelated words with a causal connection, forming a scenario where eating bananas led to vomiting, leaving you with a somewhat unpleasant feeling. 

You didn’t have to consciously think of this, your brain did the work of finding the best possible connection between the two words.

These two aspects of the associative nature of our brain – activating connected ideas and finding connections between random ideas – are what make it possible for us to think creatively. In fact, most creative thinking techniques rely on these two underlying mechanisms in one form or the other to generate novel ideas.

  1. Traversing Connected Ideas: Techniques like “Slice and Dice” and “Cherry Split” in Thinkertoys or segmentation in TRIZ, work by forcing the brain to traverse different paths in the associative network by explicitly listing out the triggers.
  2. Adding a Random Component: By simply introducing a random element into the mix, the brain automatically tries to find the best way to incorporate the random element into the solution. Techniques like the “Brute Think” and “Hall of Fame” in Thinkertoys are an example of such an approach.

What made us come so far is likely because of our unique cognitive strengths – how we store and process information in our brains, combine different ideas and run mental simulations. These strengths allowed us to solve problems, make inventions and build on each others ideas, and they just might turn out to be key for our future as well.