I’m a scientist and I’m creative

Yesterday I finished the third class of the online Creativity + Science course I’m teaching for PhD students at the School of Natural and Exact Sciences, University of Mar del Plata in Argentina. We have 12 students of varied backgrounds: biologist, biochemists and chemists; and from different research levels: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th year of their doctoral thesis. Research projects range from molecular studies of cyanobacteria, research of native aquatic beetles and of molecular modeling of natural products applied to the development of resistance inhibitors to multiple drugs; to paleoparasitological studies and research of carabids as indicators of sustainability.

While the course aims at helping students develop creative thinking, it also teaches students core sensemaking strategies that they can use to aid the communication of complex information. Particularly, the combination of creativity and information design skills is extremely powerful to science students, as students learn both how to generate and effectively share innovative ideas with others.

Each class, we do short exercises putting theory into practice, including divergent thinking, sensibilization and imagination exercises. This week students completed their first one-week long exercise. Overall, I was really pleased with the results. I assigned this exercise at the end of Week 2 not only to practice creativity skills discussed in class, but also to gain a better sense of where each student was regarding their own creativity. Understanding early on in the course what is the creativity level of the class really helps me tailor the remaining classes and exercises to the needs of the group.

This post is the first of a series of creativity exercises I have designed to help scientists reconnect with their creativity skills and engage in creative behaviors. As my students complete the exercises I will share them, providing instructions and discussing outputs from my course.

Exercise 1: Promoting science

Duration: One week

Materials: Title, three key words, short description of research project (150 words). Paper, markers, scissors, or digital tools.

Instructions: Complete a questionnaire explaining your thesis, including title, three key words and short description before class. Give each student someone else’s thesis project as a word document.

Goal: Create a poster for 5 year-olds promoting the assigned thesis. This exercise challenges students to:

  • Build empathy: How do children think? What would engage them?
  • Think visually: In contrast to design students, thinking visually and expressing ideas with abstract shapes and colors is foreign and pushes them out of their comfort zone.
  • Challenge assumptions: Main assumptions were: A doctoral investigation has to be explained with complex words (the longer the better!), science has to be serious, visual thinking is for artists
  • Learn first, create second: understanding what needed to be communicated was key to identify the essence and generate more creative ideas, and strong concepts
  • Experiment & Explore: For many, the first idea didn’t work, and they had to keep working to generate more interesting ideas
  • Think conceptually and abstractly: Explaining a complex topic using traditional narrative techniques was the first idea for many of the students; projects where students managed to break assumptions, presented more creative ways to tell the story using engaging concepts for the given audience.
  • Use metaphors: Some students transformed highly complex concepts into animated characters: What if anemones could have eyes? What if cyanobacteria could talk and express their feelings?

Show & Tell: Each student presents their poster to the class. Presentations help students see the wide range of approaches to a same task, and also start identifying common barriers to creativity.

Analyze outputs: Engage in discussion with students to help them identify creativity tactics that they could do, and gain awareness of the differences between more and less creative ideas. Resulting posters can be grouped into different approaches students used to illustrate different levels of creativity. In my case, I identified the following three approaches:

1. Conceptual approach

LEFT: This poster synthesized the key idea of the project as a timeline. It represents the thesis titled: Paleoparasitological Studies in Late Quaternary Paleomadrigueras in the Atacama Desert, Chile, South America. RIGHT: This poster uses comparison as the core communication strategy: current situation vs better situation with the application of the thesis outcome.

The posters used illustrations to explain the story based on strong clear concepts that the audience could relate to and easily understand the core message. These students were able to break assumptions of conventional scientific narrative and communicate science in more conceptual ways. They focused on expressing the main idea rather than adding technical details. This creative technique could be used to make science more accessible to the general audience.

2. Metaphoric approach

LEFT: This poster uses comic style to tell the story, using cyanobacteria as the main characters and speaking directly to the audience. CENTER: This poster relies solely on visuals to tell a before and after story to indicate the benefits of the thesis. RIGHT: This poster combines personifications (anemones) with comic style to tell the story.

These posters combined the use of visual metaphors with comic style, creating an engaging, and original narrative and visual language. Personification of objects of study as the main characters of the story who speak directly to the audience and the use of simple words make the resulting posters easy to understand. One of the posters (not shown here) used characters from the PacMan game to illustrate mosquitos and beetles, the main objects of study of the assigned thesis.

3. Scientific approach

The middle poster is the only one that uses a more approachable language to engage the audience. The other two use a more realistic approach to communicate the story.

These posters combined narrative techniques frequently used in scientific posters with easy-to-understand titles that summarize the core topic under investigation. The message is communicated in linear form, similar to the structure of an abstract, and arrows are used to connect ideas and guide the reader. While the language has been simplified, these students struggled to break with traditional ways of communicating knowledge and couldn’t generate a more sophisticated concept to convey the main idea.

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