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. 

3 Simple Ways to Add Creativity in Math

In a study by the US Department of Education, 81% of 4th graders reported having a positive attitude towards mathematics but that number drops significantly to 35% for 8th graders. Somehow, in the span of four years, children lose their interest in the subject, and as a result their performance declines. Professor Eric Mann, believes that “keeping students interested and engaged in mathematics by recognizing and valuing their mathematical creativity may reverse this tendency.”

In fact, research has shown that creativity can actually help students acquire content knowledge. But, how can we encourage creativity in mathematics, a subject usually considered linear and inflexible? A few people have come up with ways to twist math problems to make them more creative and fun. So, here are three simple ways to add more creativity in mathematics.

Problem Finding

Problem finding, or problem posing, in any domain is considered to be an important and integral aspect of creativity. For this activity, students are asked to come up with as many different problems as they can with a given situation. One example that Harpen and colleagues used to evaluate creativity is:

In the picture above (Fig. a), there is a triangle and its inscribed circle. Make up as many problems as you can that are related to this picture.

Most students were able to come up with problems involving Lengths (“If the triangle is a right triangle, the hypotenuse is 2, another angle is 60o, find the radius of the circle”) or Areas (“Given the radius of the circle r, find out the minimum are of the triangle”). Creative students were able to pose questions from different fields of mathematics including less obvious ones like probability (“If you are to drop something to the circle, what is the probability of it falling into the triangle?”).

Divergent Thinking

Mathematical problems with many possible solutions can help build divergent thinking skills. Exploring multiple solutions forces students to look beyond the obvious and . One such problem posed by Haylock is:

Given a nine-dot centimeter-square draw as many shapes as possible with an area of 2cm2, by joining up the dots with straight lines.

Most children come up with the easiest solution of drawing a rectangle 2cm x 1cm, but finding other kinds of shapes gets harder.  One highly creative solution shown in the picture above (Fig. b) uses two new ideas –  connecting non-adjacent dots and using an internal angle of 315o.

Overcoming Fixation

A key aspect of creativity is to break free from routine patterns of thinking (flexible thinking). By forcing students to drop their established mindsets helps them in examining a problem from different perspectives and arriving at better solutions. In the same study, Haylock gave students a series of questions in which the students are asked to find two numbers given their sum and difference. The first few example use only positive integers which sets the student’s mindset to expect solutions that use only positive whole numbers. Then the students are asked:

Find two numbers where the sum is 9 and the difference is 2.

A surprisingly large number of students assert that this is not possible. The more creative students were able to remove the self-imposed constraint of using only whole numbers and get to the right solution (5.5 and 3.5).

An often overlooked but important aspect of Creativity

One of the earliest people to recognize that posing questions and finding problems can be an invaluable tool in learning was Socrates. Almost 2,500 years ago, Socrates developed an approach of asking questions (elenchi) to reach a state of contradiction (aporia) to help discover new insights for the concept under study. Even though he was eventually found guilty of “corrupting the minds of the youth” and sentenced to death by drinking poison hemlock, his ideas survived and influenced the present-day scientific method.

Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, leading figures in the field of creativity, have explored the role of problem discovery in creativity. In a landmark experiment, they brought in art students who were given the task of drawing still life from a selection of objects. They found that students displayed one of two behaviors – problem-solving students spent less time choosing and manipulating an object they painted, while problem-finding students spent considerably longer examining and manipulating their objects. What they learned next was quite interesting.

The problem-finding artists generated paintings that were judged to be more original by a panel of independent experts. What was even more fascinating was how these artists fared in the long run. Getzels and Csikszentmihalyi measured the success of these students seven years after the experiment and again after another eleven years. They found that problem-finding students were the most successful in their careers as artists compared to problem-solving students, many of whom had abandoned art altogether!

Problem posing isn’t just relevant in the art domain – it extends to even mathematics, a field conventionally not considered creative. In a study conducted on creativity and mathematical problem posing, researchers asked high school students in US and China to come up with as many mathematical problems in different tasks. An example task was a figure of a triangle with an inscribed circle where the participants had to make up problems related to the figure. Researchers then evaluated the responses on the fluency, flexibility and originality – key dimensions of creativity. They found that the more mathematically advanced students were also more creative in posing problems compared to their peers. Professors Singer, Ellerton and Cai, who study mathematical education in the different parts of the world, summarized as follows: “Problem posing improves students’ problem-solving skills, attitudes, and confidence in mathematics, and contributes to a broader understanding of mathematical concepts and the development of mathematical thinking”.

Creativity flourishes when problem finding meets problem solving. Professor Edward Silver, who conducts research related to teaching and learning of mathematics, observes, “The connection to creativity lies not so much in problem posing itself, but rather in the interplay between problem posing and problem solving. It is this interplay of formulating, attempting to solve, reformulating, and eventually solving a problem that one sees creative activity”.

Problem finding is at the core of MindAntix – users not only solve creative problems but are encouraged to find new problems that they have observed or discovered in the process. Problem finding, while often overlooked, is a meta-skill applicable to many different domains and is an indicator of both creativity and excellence.