After eight weeks, this Thursday was the last class of the Creativity + Science online course I taught for science PhD students at the School of Exact and Natural Sciences (University of Mar del Plata, Argentina). The course was structured in two units:
- Unit 1. Personal creativity: Students learned the science behind creative thinking to understand the cognitive mechanisms involved in the generation of ideas and why this activity sometimes can be challenging. They work introspectively to identify their own mental blocks, fears and self-imposed constraints that act as barriers to their creativity. They practice techniques and strategies to reconnect with their imagination and work around identified barriers that are hindering their creative potential.
- Unit 2. Creative Science: Following the creative process, students applied class learnings to rethink their PhD investigations and propose a creative approach that could initiate new dialogue, present unusual points of view, or showcase new opportunities for scientific inquiry.
Students worked in their final project for four weeks and presented their proposed ideas to rethink science to a full house: everyone’s thesis supervisors and co-supervisors who have never seen their ideas before, and came from multiple backgrounds (chemistry, biology, biochemistry, paleontology, environmental sciences). The projects were very different from each other; for example, some proposed to adopt methods from other fields, others to generate new techniques to collect data, and others imagined new devices to analyze data visually. Interestingly three major themes emerged:
- Interdisciplinary collaboration: All students suggested to work closely with researchers from other disciplines to add new perspectives to their projects. Working in interdisciplinary teams, something that perhaps for designers is commonplace, does not seem to be a frequent approach in more scientific fields.
- Gathering of higher quality data: Many of the students suggested the creation of new devices to help gather more accurate data, either by spending time with the subject of study (e.g. birds, rats, beetles) or reducing human error from the identification of raw material.
- Use of technology: Most of the students also suggested making use of the latest technological advances to improve traditional techniques to gather data, measure results or test findings, and to reduce the level of stress that any research experiment may add to the study subjects. This is interesting considering that none of the students had an engineering or a design background.
Information design techniques helped students create well-structured presentations and communicate their complex research projects in accessible ways. Likewise, design methods helped students make their ideas tangible and visible so others could see them and better understand how they could rethink their research. Throughout the course, we covered a range of techniques including visual maps to explain the starting point and provide context for the projects, Today/Tomorrow pictures to explain how the proposed idea would change such context, Moodboards to communicate more abstract dimensions of the ideas, Storyboards to explain how the ideas would work or could be made a reality, and prototypes of different levels of fidelity, from hand drawings, 3D renderings, digital diagrams to physical objects to illustrate the ideas.
The course has been a great experience for me. I have taught creativity many times to diverse groups of students, but this was the first time I taught it to a group of students where all of them were scientists with no design or arts experience at all. Overall, the results have, once again, demonstrated the power of creative thinking beyond its external application (on science, technology, etc.), and generation of innovative ideas. All the students stressed personal growth and learning about themselves thanks to the strong focus of the course on metacognitive strategies and reflective exercises. The first step to make a positive impact and change the world is personal change: we need to reconnect with our imagination and aloud ourselves to think creatively. Then we can help others.
Looking forward to seeing how the students’ proposals evolve!