Creativity + Science: Understanding students’ barriers

A creative exercise: Describe what you see in this image in no more than 100 words.
Write three words that help you describe how you felt when completing the exercise.


After a successful and very rewarding first experience, I’m teaching again the Creativity + Science course for science PhD students. This semester, due to high demand, we expanded enrollment to all universities in Argentina, rather than limiting it to students in the University of Mar del Plata as we did for the first cohort. As the course was oversubscribed, we decided to take a new approach to select the final cohort.

Creativity is fun, but when you are “new” to it, you may not know what reconnecting with your creative self may involve. But being in the right mindset is essential to embark in this journey. Motivation and commitment, as Teresa Amabile, Mark Runco and many others pointed out, are key ingredients to free our imagination. Willingness to take risks and embrace different ways of doing, seeing and thinking is also another one. Without these three ingredients, creativity can be tough, and many people may feel unprepared and even quit. This is a similar experience like practicing sports after a long winter! After the first two days everything hurts and staying in the sofa may seem more appealing than going out again for a run. This analogy greatly describes students’ behaviors when learning creativity. Often, when students start feeling challenged or that they struggle to generate “creative” ideas, they decide to quit rather than to stay and keep trying while feeling uncomfortable for a while.

Based on common behaviors, I have identified three types of creativity students:

  1. Believers. Students who instantly understand the value of the class and the exercises
  2. Challengers. Students who have difficulty understanding most of the exercises, and even protest and reluctantly engage in class, but, by the end of the course, have seen the benefits of the class and experienced big personal change
  3. Not-ready yet. Students who have difficulty understanding the class, and decide to drop after one or two weeks describing the class as “childish” or “this is not for me”

A creative approach for science students

When we saw the long list of enrolled students combining PhD students, postdocs, and professors, we knew that we needed to do something to minimize the chances of selecting “not-ready-yet” students, as then another “believer” or “challenger” students would miss the opportunity of taking the class, when the former students would drop. To help us narrow down the list, we decided to be very clear and transparent about what a creativity journey may entail:

  • We explained the class goals (again! Although these are stated in the course syllabus)
  • We articulated class expectations, describing possible barriers or mental blocks that students could experience in response to class discussions and exercises
  • We stated what is expected from students: motivation, commitment and deliberate practice
  • We designed one creative exercise to help students experience part of what they would practice in the class

The exercise was the opposite of what science students would expect: it was simple, open-ended and ambiguous, as explained in this blog image. We were less concerned about the responses to the exercise, and more interested in learning how students felt about the exercise. Feelings help understand the type of mental blocks we experience in creativity and can act as an indicator of students’ preparedness to embark in a creativity journey.

With this in mind, we created a short online questionnaire and sent it to the students. From the initial 44 enrolled students, only 19 students responded to the exercise and questions. Clearly stating the class expectations seem to have helped students decide whether they were ready for this type of class or not. We also considered students’ PhD thesis topic areas to ensure that we had a group of students from multiple disciplines and with varied interests. Based on students’ responses, we selected the final cohort: 13 students across three levels of seniority, doing their PhDs in engineering, biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy.

It may be coincidence or that the work we put into the selection process helped, but since the first day, all students have shown deep interest in exploring their personal creativity, identifying their mental blocks, and learning strategies and techniques to unlock their imagination. Classes are intense, and full of reflective discussions.

One comment

  1. Graciela Salerno

    Te admiro la claridad de pensamiento, y la magia que ponés en tus palabras, sintetizando con maestría lo que expresaron diversos actores del tema. Mis super felicitaciones. Me encantó. Besos

    El mar, 16 nov 2021 a las 20:56, Bridging Theory and Practice () escribió:

    > sheilapontis posted: ” A creative exercise: Describe what you see in this > image in no more than 100 words.Summarize in three words what the exercise > made you feel. After a successful and very rewarding first experience, I’m > teaching again the Creativity + Science cours” >

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