Creativity + Science: Understanding the role of problem statements

Last week we arrived at the end of the Creativity + Science course with the final project presentations. This cohort created strong and visually engaging presentations, and did an excellent job communicating their research goals and ideas. Interestingly, some of the ideas presented had similarities with that of the first group. For example, robotics seems to play a strong role among young researchers. Many of them generated ideas to build bird and rodent-like robots to help collect more accurate data and explore areas that are hard to access by only human means. Other students suggested the creation of new commercial products to help bring awareness. For example, one student generated a new line of frozen products to illustrate the importance of fish, another created a new line of products for children to demonstrate the role of ionization in food, and yet another student developed a new concentrate to improve the quality of water. One of the most interesting projects focus on challenging a well-established “truth”: the negative impact of plastic in fish.

While the ideas generated certainly have the potential to jump-start innovative scientific paths, the most important aspect of the course was teaching students how to reframe their initial thesis problem statements and research questions. All twelve students succeeded in defining new problem statements that questioned traditional ways of conducting scientific research, opening the door to look at familiar things from new perspectives. These are some of the resulting problem statements:

  • How might we demonstrate the benefits of treating food with ionizing radiation?
  • How might we determine whether plastic influences the nutritional condition of croakers?
  • How might we study what is the response of Antarctic macroalgae in modified environments as consequence of climate change?
  • How might we improve the knowledge about the origin of ultra-high energy cosmic rays?

I noticed that, in most cases, the audience only focused on the novelty of the ideas but didn’t pay attention to the innovative nature of the problem statements. This may be an indicator of a common societal problem: we tend to focus on the end-product or solution, rather than on the root of the problem. When we feel frustrated because we can’t come up with creative ideas, the problem may not be on us, but on how we are framing the problem. Common issues are:

  • too narrow starting point: generating problem statements that already include a specific type of solution, which dramatically constraints idea generation
  • too conventional view: generating problem statements that don’t challenge reality enough, which don’t allow much room for imaginative ideas
  • too broad of an approach: generating problem statements that are extremely generic; while they allow the generation of innovative ideas, the resulting ideas may not be relevant to the problem at hand

Understanding the role that the problem statement plays in creative thinking is as important as generating innovative ideas.

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