Posts Tagged ‘ creativity in the classroom ’

Experiments in Creative Approaches to Science Education

Experiments in Creative Approaches to Science Education,

by Mika Munakata and Ashwin Vaidya

By Dr. Mika Munakata, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montclair State University
and Dr. Ashwin Vaidya, Department of Mathematical Sciences, Montclair State University

“Newton’s second law of motion states…”

In reconsidering the effectiveness of this typical script in any beginning physics course, it strikes us that while the standard method of conveying scientific information may work for the scientifically gifted and motivated student, it leaves behind the majority of the already scientifically alienated. Presenting a discipline such as physics as something external to oneself is therefore akin to alienating oneself from nature. Our understanding and description of nature is intricately tied to our experiences and sensations of the world around us; the Descartian approach of reducing nature to a set of mental rules, while powerful, is insufficient as a pedagogical tool. Along with a recounting of the historical reconstruction of scientific laws, students would benefit from (re)creating science. The rest of this article describes some of our experiments along these lines.

Students’ perception of creativity and science

Not so long ago, we administered a survey to over 200 MSU undergraduate and master’s science and mathematics students (Munakata and Vaidya, 2012). The aim of the survey was to assess students’ perceptions of the role of creativity in the sciences. The questionnaire, using a Likert- scale measurement from 1 to 5, asked students to indicate the degree to which various disciplines encouraged creativity.

Figure 1: Creativity ratings for different disciplines by CSAM students

Figure 1: Creativity ratings for different disciplines by CSAM students

It first asked students to describe the most creative activity they have been engaged in and to compare various disciplines, events and skills against their standard of creativity. Our data (Figure 1) revealed that even among science and mathematics students, arts-related disciplines were deemed to be more creative than sciences. Further, among the science disciplines, those that were more applied (medicine, engineering, physics) were rated as being more creative than the theory-based disciplines. The somewhat favorable ratings received by these scientific disciplines may not be random or coincidental; several of the students taking the survey were aspiring medical students and enrolled in a physics course taught by one of the authors . These results were also confirmed by other sections of the survey that asked students to describe the most creative activity they have engaged in. The results clearly illustrate the perception that creativity does not play a role in scientific and mathematical endeavors.

Though the results of this survey are not surprising, they are nevertheless disturbing to the science educator and pose a challenge for those of us who encourage our students to be innovative and try to equip them with the tools necessary towards this accomplishment. If we strive to engage students in science in the same way that a scientist approaches it—that is, creatively— it is imperative that we expose students to opportunities to engage in the creative process early on during their education. This is not so easy. Unfortunately, creativity and imagination are seldom emphasized in STEM learning (NRC, 2005) with rote and dry instructional practices often leading to students dropping out of STEM fields (Goldberg, 2008). By and large, students, especially in introductory courses, are taught by lecture and their laboratory experiments are usually predetermined. This may be the case in other disciplines as well.

Some institutions have made a deliberate attempt at revamping their curricula; traditional lecture-style teaching has been replaced by inquiry-based teaching, often encouraging students to fully engage in the scientific process . Others have proposed refocusing introductory science courses to reflect two aims: promote conceptual understanding and showcase the process of scientific inquiry (Meinwald & Hildebrand, 2011). These aims can be achieved by making courses student-centered and encouraging exploration and dialogue (see DeHaan (11)). Yet another way we propose is to engage STEM students in activities that merge science with creativity.

The Art of Science experiments

The Art of Science Project: We recently initiated an experiment in our classroom with the help of a grant from the American Physical Society. The project, which began in the fall of 2012, involves undergraduate physics and arts students in the exploration and development of a hand crank camera and in the subsequent production of sustainability-themed short movies . This innovative activity, or performance, will capitalize on the public’s passion for movies. The moving image occupies an increasingly demanding place in contemporary life.

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

Figure 2: Students working on a simple hand crank mechanism

The amount of energy spent on both the production and consumption of media nowadays is enormous; cinema itself, however, was born of modest mechanical means. Just over a century ago, hand- cranked cameras and bioscopes harnessed human energy to present the visual illusions that still hold our attentions today. This project is a collaboration between the disciplines of physics and art at MSU and is being conducted with the collaboration of faculty and artists from across and outside the campus with the hope of bringing the playful side of science to the forefront of the student consciousness. The project is being conducted in three distinct phases:

  • Development of new technology: In the fall of 2012, physics students from an upper- level course worked together to investigate the mechanics of a working hand-crank video camera as a special project in MSU’s “Classical Mechanics” (Physics 210). The exercise involved discussions about energy generation, the conversion of mechanical to electrical energy and sustainable energy practices . In the laboratory, we took apart hand-crank units, analyzed their parts and worked on putting together one of our own (see figure 2).
  • The second part of the technical project, which is currently underway with the help of students from the physics club, involves the development of a bicycle-powered generator. Power generated by operating the bicycles will be stored in the generator for later use in projecting. With the assistance of a visiting artist, Anuj Vaidya, students from MSU’s art department will soon begin to work with the physics students to create a series of short videos that explore issues of ecology and sustainability. They will use the hand-crank cameras to record images for their work. In addition to these images, students will be able to use recycled sounds and images to complete their short pieces.
  • The culminating event for the Art of Making Science project will be an exhibition and workshop held on the campus and open to the public. The physics and art students will present their product (both the machinery and the movie) to students and faculty during a special presentation at the 4th Annual University Teaching and Learning Showcase event, sponsored by the Research Academy.
Photo credit Anthony DeStefano, 2012.

Photo credit Anthony DeStefano, 2012.

The RAUL Showcase will also feature the Physics and Art exhibition which we initiated as an experiment in informal education to have students see the ubiquity and beauty of science. The exhibition showcases students’ photographs on any theme but with an aesthetic eye.

Students from CSAM are asked to submit photographs and to identify and elaborate on the science behind the art . These are mounted on posters and showcased during the exhibition. In all, more than 100 photographs have been submitted to date. Each year, a group of faculty from CSAM and CART award prizes to three student photographers.

The idea behind the events of the day are twofold: the art exhibition which is student- oriented gives the students a chance to participate in an art-science creation and get the audience in the right frame of mind to discuss the deep connections between art and science, and to reveal the sciences as a very creative enterprise. In the true sense of creativity, these events provide the opportunity for students to shift their paradigms about the nature of science learning. More often than not, we found the students pleasantly surprised to find physics hidden in the pictures that they took.

Photo credit Ashley LaRose, 2012.

Photo credit Ashley LaRose, 2012.

Reactions to these events:

We are in the process of assessing the impact of these events on students’ perceptions of the role of creativity in the sciences. Our hope is to distinguish the effective elements of these types of activities to share with STEM colleagues.

Conversations and the general public mood during the physics and art event clearly indicated excitement over the photographs and appreciation for the theme of the day.

Students in the upper level physics class were asked for reflections on their experiences with the Art of Making Science project and their classroom experience. Students recognized that the structure of the course was different from the typical day-long science laboratory exercises. They commented that the ongoing nature of the project provided incentive to prepare between class meetings and also stated that as opposed to the question-and-answer structure that is common in other classes, this class was open-ended and allowed for the student to ask their own questions and to try to formulate answers to them. One student saw this as good preparation for science after graduation, when textbooks won’t be available to provide answers.

Students also enjoyed the teamwork aspect of the project . They learned how to work on their own piece of the project while keeping the big picture of the group project in mind. Teamwork allowed them to combine their knowledge and to share ideas . For example, some in the group were “better with their hands” while others had “deeper theoretical knowledge .” Although some alluded to different starting points within the group, groups were able to find their rhythm and learn to communicate efficiently and effectively. Students enjoyed that they got to know each other well due to the focused time they spent outside of class.

The importance of such experiments and informal events cannot be underestimated. They can be extremely beneficial in conveying essential ideas which might be difficult in the traditional classroom due to pressures associated with grades. Additionally, even the elementary mathematical treatments of topics in physics is seen by many students as being very burdensome due to previously instilled fears about mathematics and science. Our experiments have proved to be a revelation to students and faculty alike; it has allowed us to provide a forum where talking about science and creating science are both possible and equally valued . It has allowed students to see that science and in fact, even art, are not created in isolation; there is a strong tie between them that often goes unnoticed . In becoming comfortable with failure, we have given ourselves a greater chance of success. The roots of the notion of creativity lie in creation, after all, and our collective consciousness have been shaped by our students’ creation. As our project races to completion with the creation of the short film, we look forward to more shifts in our thinking of what science or art really mean. We invite you to join us for the culmination of this experience on May 3.

References:

DeHaan, R. L. (2005). The impending revolution in undergraduate science education. Journal of Sci. Educ. and Tech., 14(2), 253-269.

Meinwald, J. & Hildebrand, J. G. (2010). Introduction. In J. Meinwald & J. G. Hildebrand (Eds .), Science and the educated American: A core component of liberal education (pp. 1-8). Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Munakata, M. and Vaidya, A. (2012) . Encouraging Creativity in Mathematics and Science Through Photography. Teaching Mathematics and its Applications. 31(3). 121-132.

Goldberg, D. E. (2008). Last word: Bury the Cold War curriculum. ASEE PRISM, 17(8).

National Research Council. (2005). S. Donovan & J. Bransford (Eds .) . How students learn: History, mathematics, and science in the classroom. Washington, D .C .: National Academies Press.

Playing Games to Learn – Ideas and Resources

LogicPuzzleMy 7th/8th grade math teacher, Ms. Whitney, always included logic puzzles at the end of every unit test given on each Friday. When reviewing the test answers on Monday morning, she always walked us through the solution of the puzzle. For all of us in her 7th and 8th grade math classes, those puzzles were the real reward for finishing the test, with the additional bonus of 10 extra credit points on the test if you completed a puzzle successfully. Sometimes I ran out of time and sometimes I finished them; I always loved to try. I still enjoy logic puzzles to this day, and I still feel very accomplished if I can finish one on the first try (very rare): they can be extremely hard, at times seem impossible to solve. These games were not frivolous or without real learning outcomes, despite the fact that we students didn’t know that. We had fun trying them and competing with each other to see who could finish one, and in the process, learned about strategy, elimination of facts, cross-referencing clues, referring back and anticipating forward: that is, how to think logically. The logic puzzles were contained within funny and appealing narratives (seven students tried out for the school play: figure out who got the lead role, who was understudy, who became a prop, etc. based on the clues provided).

Games are an integral part of learning. Ask any five-year old or, like me, a struggling 7th grade math student. When we play games, we fall down, get tagged out, get hit with the dodge ball, lose some/win some, take risks, try again, show up, work together, strategize, change tactics/approaches –we try. There is very little we won’t do or try  to succeed at a game – even if we don’t always win. Sometimes we walk away from a game out of frustration, disappointment, anger, boredom, hurt feelings, sour grapes; we quit, but the game stays with us, we usually come back and try again, or the sense of failing may follow us forever (despite being tall, I was never good at basketball; I’m still trying to land a layup).

Jane McGonigal believes that games can make a better world. Tom Chatfield connects gaming with brain rewards and intrinsic motivation. It’s worth your time to listen to these two TED Talks and consider how games may make your teaching and student learning explode with excitement, engagement, interactivity, and, most importantly, fun:

Jane McGonigal TED Talk: Gaming can make a better world

Tom Chatfield: 7 ways that games reward the brain

So now that we know how engaging gaming is (and this isn’t just about video games!), why aren’t we using more games in our classrooms? Or, why haven’t we found the game that will change the dynamic, light some fires, introduce fun, into our class? It’s not so easy to just think up a game that meets our content specifications, learning goals, and assessment/grading needs. Sometimes we just need to see what other people are doing out there, to be inspired and try something new for presenting or delivering conceptual material in our courses. So below you will find a whole list of examples from disciplines across the curriculum. Hopefully, you find something that appeals.

One of the foremost theorists on the connection between gaming and learning, employing what he calls “pedagogies that combine immersion with well-designed guidance” is James Paul Gee. His research article, “Game-Like Learning,” contains a wealth of examples on how to leverage video games for knowledge building, especially conceptual simulations that apply new knowledge and immerse students in environments that provide opportunities for making judgments and receiving formative feedback. Here –very condensed– are some of his examples (read the full article here: http://www.jamespaulgee.com/node/29):

  • Supercharged!

    “Kurt Squire and his colleagues (Squire et al. 2004; see also Jenkins, Squire, and Tan 2003; Squire 2003) have worked on a computer game called Supercharged! to help students learn physics. Supercharged! is an electro- magnetism simulation game developed in consultation with MIT physicist John Belcher by the Games-to-Teach project at MIT (run by Henry Jenkins; see http://www.educationarcade.org). Players use the game to explore electromag- netic mazes, placing charged particles and controlling a ship that navigates by altering its charge. The game play consists of two phases: planning and playing. Each time players encounter a new level, they are given a limited set of charges that they can place throughout the environment, enabling them to shape the trajectory of their ship.”

  • Augmented by reality: Madison 2020250px-SimCity_2013_Limited_Edition_cover

    “In their Madison 2020 project, David Shaffer and Kelly Beckett at the University of Wisconsin have developed, implemented, and assessed a game-like simulation that simulates some of the activities of professional urban planners (Beckett and Shaffer 2004; see also Shaffer et al. 2004). This game (and I will call it a game because it functions very much like a game in the learning environment in which it is used) and its learning environment incorporate many of the same deep learning principles that we have seen at play in Full Spectrum Warrior [a commercial video game Gee references earlier in the article –JD].

    Shaffer and Beckett’s game is not a stand-alone entity but is used as part of a larger learning system. Shaffer and Beckett call their approach to game- like learning “augmented by reality,” because a virtual reality – that is, the game simulation – is augmented or supplemented by real-world activities; in this case, further activities of the sort in which urban planners engage. Minority high school students in a summer enrichment program engaged with Shaffer and Beckett’s urban planning simulation game, and, as they did so, their problem-solving work in the game was guided by real-world tools and practices taken from the domain of professional urban planners.

    As in the game SimCity, in Shaffer and Beckett’s game, students make land- use decisions and consider the complex results of their decisions. However, unlike in SimCity, they use real-world data and authentic planning practices to inform those decisions.”

  • Assessing Learning Through Games

    “Why, then, would we need any assessment apart from the game itself? One reason – indeed, a reason Janie herself would – is that Janie might want to know, at a somewhat more abstract level than moment-by-moment play, how she is doing and how she can do better. She might want to know which features of her activities and strategies in the game are indicative of progress or success and which are not. Of course, the game is very complex, so this won’t be any particular score or grade. What Janie needs is a formative or developmental assessment that can let her theorize her play and change it for the better, and this is what the game gives her.

    At the end of any play session in Rise of Nations [a commercial real-time strategy game, discussed by Gee earlier in the article to provide an example of a complex, real-time, competitive game that is challenging and has built-in learning assessments –JD], the player does not just get the message “you win” or “you lose,” but rather a dozen charts and graphs detailing a myriad of aspects of her activities and strategies across the whole time span of her play (and her civilization’s life). This gives Janie a more abstract view of her play; it models her play session and gets her to see her play session as one “type” of game, one way to play the game against other ways. It gives her a meta-representation of the game and her game play in terms of which she can become a theoretician of her own play and learning. From this information, she does not learn just to be faster or “better”; she learns how to think strategically about the game in ways that allow her to transform old strategies and try out new ones. She comes to see the game as a system of interconnected relationships.”

madlibsThere are many other examples, some more or less sophisticated than the ones Gee describes, of educators using gaming to teach disciplinary concepts, or, more meta-cognitively, to teach higher-order thinking, strategy, creativity, and problem-solving using “real-life” situational simulations. In addition to my experience with logic puzzles, I know of English professors who use Mad Libs to teach linguistics, concepts of semiology, etc. I have read of professors who use the board game Clue to teach deductive vs. inductive reasoning. Here is a list of other higher education practices and programs who are successfully using games in their teaching:Clue Classic Boardgame $13.00

  • Stanford University Med School: EteRNA. Players arrange colored discs into two-dimensional chain-link shapes to create blueprints for RNA molecules. Link: http://med.stanford.edu/ism/2011/january/eterna.html
  • McGill University, Montreal, Canada: Phylo. An online game that anyone can play (try it out, it’s cool!), it is a simply puzzle format that has players shift genetic sequences to find the best possible matches for up to eight species at a time. Link: http://phylo.cs.mcgill.ca/
  • Magazine2CoverArtworkMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): Education Arcade. Features The Radix Endeavor, designed to resemble World of Warcraft type game experience, a multi-player environment that is competitive, where knowledge is collected and hoarded, and problems solved using mathematical and scientific concepts.
  • CancerZap! Needs players! Opportunity for science educators to get students involved in research simulation. Read more: http://www.photonics.com/Article.aspx?AID=51398
  • RTTP Picture 2Barnard College, Dr. Mark Carnes: Reacting to the Past. Involves role playing, classic texts, historical settings, period costumes, and is currently used on over 300 campuses to teach and immerse students in history and literature. Link: http://reacting.barnard.edu/

For those of you who are already game-users or early classroom-game adopters, please share your practice or experience! I will publish each comment or email that comes in that details how to use game play (of any nature) to teach a concept or course material. I’d love to turn this post into a centralized resource to inspire educators to try out games in their course design.

References/Additional Reading:

“Games for Science” The Scientist, 1 Jan. 2013. Web <http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/33715/title/Games-for-Science/>

“Colleges Latest Thrust in Learning: Video Games,” USA Today, 29 Nov. 2011. Web. <http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/story/2011-11-29/video-games-college-learning/51478224/1>

“Where Does Gamification Fit in Higher Education?” EdTech, 30 Nov. 2012. Web. <http://www.edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2012/11/where-does-gamification-fit-higher-education-infographic>

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