Creativity and Science: The Perfect Couple

Alongside a national agenda to increase STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) literacy, there is a parallel track of growing attention being placed on creativity.

Conversations such as "What is the role that creativity plays in science?" have transitioned from esoteric musings to home-page-feature articles, giving the public an opportunity to embrace creativity as a topic that extends outside the art room.

In a 2010 IBM research study involving over 1,500 CEOs from more than 60 countries, the number-one core leadership competency for future success was identified as -- drum roll, please -- creativity.

Individuals in STEM leadership positions are tasked to apply novelty to the way in which they go about visioning, strategizing, and planning.

If we are to expect the children of today to become tomorrow's STEM leaders and professionals, we need to look at what we are doing to nurture, grow, and prepare them for these roles. We have to look at how we are raising creative and critical thinkers who are equipped with inquiry-based and scientific reasoning skills. This is what wakes me up, along with the rest of the Camp Invention staff, each morning.

As a trained practitioner and facilitator of creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, and having spent my career as an informal science educator in a variety of settings, I have lived in the overlap of this Venn diagram of creativity and science for the last decade.

In this space I have observed a multitude of relationship-building "playgrounds" for creativity and science. Here are five that rise straight to the top:

1. Galileo's Problem

Problem finding is a key component of the creative problem-solving process. In The Evolution of Physics (1938, p. 95), Einstein and Infeld offered the following:

The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may merely be a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.

This assertion was stated in relation to Galileo formulating the problem of determining the velocity of light but not solving it. Effective problem solving requires working on the right challenges, a particularly important consideration in the highly competitive arena of obtaining resources for STEM endeavors.

2. Unlocking Solutions

I have had the opportunity to ask National Inventors Hall of Fame (NIHF) inductees, as well as Collegiate Inventors Competition finalists, to fill in the blank of the following phrase: "Inventing is_____." The majority of the Inductees, including Eric Fossum, inventor of the CMOS Active Pixel Image Sensor Camera-on-a-Chip, filled in the blank with "problem solving."

If inventors use STEM as a toolbox to turn their ideas into realities, and if problem solving is a primary tool in the box (housed in the cool part that folds out when you open the top), then we can think of creativity as the key to unlock the toolbox.

3. What Is in the Box?

If you ask any scientist about the exact nature of the work that they do, it is very likely that they will describe the tools that they use. The creativity field is prolific in tools to enrich, focus, and enhance the work of scientists and science educators. At base level, there are fantastic idea-generating tools, decision-making matrices, prioritization techniques that make planning enjoyable (or at least less painful), and workshop formats to ignite innovation. Beyond traditional tools, however, some of the most powerful offerings from the field of creativity involve the nature of the language that is used to find, navigate, and solve challenges (which really are opportunities awaiting solutions).

4. Making, Creating, and Collaborating

One of the most exciting playgrounds for creativity and science has been cultivated by the Maker Movement -- DIY meets fabrication meets collaboration and STEAM-based community building. Individuals who would not necessarily describe themselves as scientists or technologists are accessing equipment that is allowing them to express their creativity in ways once thought to be restricted to the Jetsons.

In addition, children's out-of-school-time programs, like this summer's line-up from my home base of Camp Invention, and workshops in museums, such as the Exploratorium's Tinkering Studio, are creativity and innovation incubators for dynamically exploring STEM.

5. Designing Change

Social innovation is on the rise, and design thinking is serving as its rocket ship. It is a platform where creativity and STEM work hand-in-hand, and the rewards for their integration have the potential to change billions of lives.

As I was writing this blog post, I asked my 3-year-old what he thought creativity and science have to do with each other. With a glimmer in his eye, he said, "I think that is insperiments."

I remember seeing the same glimmer in the eye of NIHF inductee Robert Willson, inventor of the plasma screen, as he filled in the blank of my interview statement starter. He said, "Inventing is creativity."

I look forward to further insperimenting and exploring how we might fill in more of the blanks of STEM by recognizing and fostering its relationship with the 21st-century skill of "creativity."