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Ideas for teaching creativity in STEM lessons

Written by Ben Newsome on May 6th, 2017.      0 comments

Teaching STEM creativity
Get creative!

Sparking creativity in students in some ways is not a challenge, kids are naturally creative regardless of their background. As such weaving some creative aspects into your next STEM lesson will definitely be welcomed in your classroom! There many ways to approach this, however the following ideas can guide the development of a great lesson that students will remember;
 

  1. Provide a clear challenge with a narrow time frame... with a reward at the end

    In other words, a 'game worth playing'. Setting a target that students can achieve is only half the battle... you need to setup a challenge they want to be involved in. Now, it is tempting to simply resort to a chocolate bribe or similar for the winner but this type of extrinsic motivation can wear a bit thin if this is your only teaching tactic for each of your challenges. To combat this, there are creative challenges you can setup in class that not only bring STEM principles to the challenge but the very act of completing the challenge is rewarding in itself (intrinsic motivation). One of the classic version of this is getting students to create Rube Goldberg machines! These machines are named after the cartoonist Rube Goldberg (1873 - 1970) who would create cartoons of insanely complicated inventions that would complete a simple task.

    Rube goldberg machine on uncorking a bottle
    Rube Goldberg machine on uncorking a bottle.

    Often used for teaching energy conversions, Rube Goldberg machines provide a creative outlet for your students to demonstrate their understanding of gravity, simple machines, application of force, fluid dynamics and more... in fact nearly every physical science can be applied in one of these machines if the students are given enough time and resources! The reason we suggest that you keep your time frame narrow is that students can spend too much time on a continual loop of testing/fixing/testing/fixing (etc) to the point of where the lesson finishes up and they don't achieve anything. Make a hard deadline that students have to adhere too and the time pressure itself will force them to focus on the challenge at hand. Done is better than perfect!

    The following series of Rube Goldberg machines depict different designs where simple craft was used to make a bell ring. This is a great stimulus video for class prior to embarking on building creative contraptions!



    Rube Goldberg machines are fascinating for kids to watch. In fact, you might remember the game 'Mouse Trap' by Milton Bradley, a great example of a Rube Goldberg machine that can serve as a conversation starter in class too!

    Mouse trap game by Milton Bradley
    Mouse trap game by Milton Bradley... can students trace the energy conversions?
     
  2. Control the amount of materials the students have access to.

    Creativity can be sparked by scarcity as well as abundance. This almost sounds like we're having a bet both both ways here but the amount of materials you give your students will have a direct impact on the lesson outcome. The question comes down to how you're trying to encourage ingenuity ... perhaps both versions taught in a sequence would work for your class! 

    When the variety of materials are scarce...

    Students have no choice but to come up with strange ways of using materials. For example, the A4 paper you gave them in an egg drop or water bomb drop challenge could be used as a parachute, a structural beam, a crumple zone, a seat belt, decoration or more. 

    The issue here is that you'll have to provide a scaffold for students to build their knowledge from, otherwise they could simply stare at the materials you've given them and have no idea what to do next. Be sure to accentuate the utility of each object;

    - Does it bend? 
    - Is it sharp or blunt?
    - Is it heavy or light?
    - What shape is the material?
    - How would the material work with other materials?

    Try to get students to think about other uses of the materials that are not as obvious as their primary purpose (eg. straws are great for sucking fluids but they also make great craft construction beams).

    bunch of straws
    What uses of straws can your students come up with?

    When the variety of materials is abundant

    Having a large variety of materials will allow students to tackle your challenge in their own way. In this case it's not so much as the access to materials that forces the creative thinking but more the requirement that their machines demonstrate as many scientific principles as possible. The issue some kids will have is that the amount of choice may well cause them to have trouble deciding what to do, plus other kids might concentrate more on decorating their contraption rather than achieving a solution to the challenge you pose. 

    Science craft materials in a cupboard drawer
    Science craft materials ready to go!

    Creating a Maker space in your school is the ultimate in providing materials for your students to expand their creativity. Once some thought is put into the budget, safety and supervision your students will love coming into this breakout area!
     
  3. Remove as many boundaries & rules as possible

    Rules are extremely useful in many situations however perhaps it might be nice for the kids to just be given some simple instructions about what they need to produce and that's about it! In 2013 we worked with the National Roads & Motoring Association on a inter-school sustainability in transport competition. Here the instructions were to create a free standing artwork of sustainable materials that was no larger than 1m x 1m x 1m (all supported by a student poster describing the science depicted). The results were quite varied!

    Battery car artwork by Seven Hills North Public School
    Rechargeable battery car artwork by Seven Hills North Public School

    Sail powered car by Kanwal Public School
    Sail powered car by Kanwal Public School

    Biofuel powered car artwork by Summer Hill Public School
    Biofuel powered car artwork by Summer Hill Public School 

    Methane powered truck artwork by Gresford Public School
    Methane powered truck artwork by Gresford Public School

     
  4. Encourage 'what if' statements

    Yes, most students will likely be keen to follow your instructions as requested however keep an eye out for students who want to follow a different line of inquiry. Many major discoveries have occurred whereby scientists have had the latitude and freedom to explore areas they were interested in and as such providing your students the same freedom when appropriate can certainly help provide them the answers they crave. We love this science quote that directly deals with this:

    thats funny quote isaac asimov; The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny...
    The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' but 'That's funny... Isaac Asimov

    If your students are in the middle of an assessment task, just take a note of their ideas and they can follow up their ideas at a later date.
     
  5. On completion, create stretch goals

    There are always kids who finish their tasks early (especially when dealing with gifted and talented students). As such its always worth having a couple goals that can help stretch the thinking of these students. Make the challenge more difficult by reducing materials, increasing the 'pass mark' or adding a completely new element to the challenge.
The barometer story

This story is an academic legend and has many permutations so as to be possibly more an allegory than real. Still, try reading this out with your students to provoke some thought about how there is often one answer to a given problem .... (reproduced as commonly found on the internet)

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

“Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.”

One student replied:

“You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.”

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g).”

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.

The student was Niels Bohr, a future Nobel Prize winner in Physics.”

 
Stimulus activity ideas for your class
 
  1. Give them a cardboard party hat. Ask them to brainstorm as many different ideas as possible that the cardboard party hat could be used (the answers don't even need to make complete sense, they just need to be creative and get the mind thinking!).

    party hats
    What could a party hat be re-purposed for?
     
  2. Create a geared car out of Lego

    Lego always is a winner for kids wanting to show off their construction skills. In this challenge you could ask them to create a car which is moved forwards by a gear box. How they achieve this is up to them!

    Lego car with a gear box
    Lego car with a gear box


Creativity is an essential part of the scientific mindset and should be part of any engaging classroom. Besides which, kids enjoy creative design and occasionally giving them a chance to freely build strange contraptions that solve a given problem will inevitably make them want to come back for more!

Happy teaching,


Ben

Ben Newsome
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