Science Education Is Woefully Uncreative. That Has to Change
WHEN STUDENTS (ESPECIALLY non-science majors) take required science classes, there is a reason. It’s not so that they can learn about the names of the planets or which plants you can eat (but that is useful to know). The primary reason that students are required to take a science class is to help them understand the nature of science.
Let’s focus on just one aspect of the nature of science that often gives students (and all sorts of people) problems.
Science Is a Creative Process
Here are some examples from the history of science.
- Einstein used curved space-time to explain gravity (and other things).
- Euler and Lagrange created the calculus of variations in order to solve the brachistochrone problem (path between two points with the shortest time). Oh, and calculus of variations is used in Lagrangian Mechanics—so it’s sort of a big deal.
- Schrödinger developed an equation with wave-like properties to use in Quantum Mechanics.
- Bohr created a model of the atom to explain the spectrum of light produced by hydrogen gas.
This is my quick summary of science: Science is all about making models. These can be physical models, or a mathematical model or even a conceptual model. If the model agrees with real life, then that’s great. If there is an experiment that disagrees with a model, then we have to change that model. That’s it.
Unfortunately, a common idea about the nature of science is that scientists have to follow procedures without using any creativity. In fact, have you ever heard anyone say “I wouldn’t be a good scientist because I’m not creative”? No, instead people say “I’m not any good at math” or “I don’t like following boring procedures.” Yes, there are procedures in science—but that’s not the main objective. Scientists follow procedures so they can reproduce a result that someone else obtained. Procedures are sort of like a map into the wilderness. If you want to explore the unknown, you first have to follow a trail to get to the uncharted regions.The creative part of science comes into play in the creation of models. In order to have a model to test, you need to build a model. You can’t just stop by the model shop and pick up a model—no, in real science you have to make these models yourself. You might start off with a terrible model, but you need to start somewhere. Once you have a model, you need an experiment. Sometimes these experiments are simple to see—but other times you need to think of a creative way to collect data. Just look at the LIGO experiment and the detection of gravitational waves as an example. Scientists have to be creative.
Science Is Creative, Science Classes Are Not
Perhaps the problem with creativity and science is our science classes. What do students do in a chemistry lab? Welcome to lab. Make sure you have your safety goggles and closed-toe shoes. Now carefully measure 2.3 mL of water and add it into the mixture. It goes on and on. Instructions. No wonder students don’t think science is creative.
But wait! If you don’t give students detailed instructions in lab, they are going to mess stuff up—or worse, get hurt—or even worse, fail the lab. It’s not just in chemistry lab that we (instructors) overuse instructions; it happens in physics and biology as well. The problem is that we wish to take our students to the wilderness—but it is an especially long journey. Even with a map, it can take 4 years of classes to get to the cool stuff.
Creativity Is Difficult to Grade
It’s not just that chemistry and physics are complicated. It’s also that creativity in science is difficult to grade, whereas following instructions is easy to grade. In this regard, science should be considered to be similar to art. In both cases, the student really needs to use some form of creativity—but it’s easier to just have them copy some work of art and see how close they can get to the original.
But there are plenty of opportunities for real creativity in science classes. One of my favorite classes is a physics class for elementary education majors. We use the textbook (really, it’s more like a workbook) Physics and Everyday Thinking. The primary goal of this course is to help students understand the nature of science (since they will be teaching science to kids). In one chapter, students try to create a model to explain what happens when you rub a nail with a magnet (it makes the nail act like a magnet). They then look at new experiments to refine their model.
Students often hate this chapter. They hate that there are no clear answers or a rigid set of procedures (there are procedures, just not for making the initial model). Although the students might not be happy, this is what happens in science—you have to create stuff.
You can also introduce creativity into the physics lab (at all levels) by giving fewer instructions. Yes, it can be scary at first—but I find that it works out quite well. One of my favorite labs is conservation of momentum in collisions. I used to give very detailed guidelines on how to collide two carts and show that momentum is conserved. Now, I just show them the carts and let them play for a bit. Students can find all sorts of cool collisions to explore. They can even be creative in their methods for measuring the initial and final velocities (I still give guidance, but they have more freedom).
Finally, there is another simple way to introduce creativity in the introductory physics courses—have the students create something. Yes, in this case I am talking about students creating a numerical model with code. Really, you should try this with your class. Students might be a little cautious at first but once they start making stuff, it’s going to be awesome. It’s even easy to grade. I have the students create a numerical calculation and create a short 5 minute screencast that shows how their program runs and what it does. Not only is it creative, using numerical calculations is just part of the way we do science now. You should be using coding in your physics class (there are no more excuses).
Let’s make science creative again.