Encouraging Creativity in STEM Class

Creativity often may be overlooked in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but STEM teachers are finding ways to make their lessons and courses innovative and encourage their students to be creative. For example, Emily Faulconer, assistant professor of math, physical, and life sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, says, “I challenge my students to summarize a concept in the form of a haiku…It helps them with vocabulary and thinking through the process, and gets students thinking outside the box…Haiku is a literary device, and easy to infuse.”

Faulconer cites “a recent interest in humanistic STEM at Embry-Riddle” that is supporting the infusion of the humanities into STEM courses. “It helps students view the sciences more broadly. They can look at science from other angles,” she contends.

As an online instructor, Faulconer posts haikus—her students’ and her own—in the discussion forum, and they’re not assessed because “the rubric grades on how students engage; it doesn’t have to be on the haiku. Students are assessed on one initial post and two reply posts [and giving] accurate responses,” she points out. While not all students contribute haikus, “the students think haiku is fun, and they comment on them. I enjoy reading them and so do they,” she relates.

“We’ve been doing infusions of other disciplines into science/STEM,” Faulconer continues. As the result of a research project on students’ perception of connections between the Introduction to General Chemistry 1 course and other STEM disciplines; the course and non-STEM disciplines; the course and their future careers; and the course and their academic degree, Faulconer and her science colleagues have changed the course’s module titles, “[leaning] more on other disciplines to make the modules sound more engaging,” she reports.

For instance, the course’s Introduction to Chemistry module has become Bacon and Gunpowder. “Philosopher Roger Bacon was the first European to develop a formula for gunpowder. [The new title] shows how important math is, which is taught in introductory courses,” Faulconer contends.

Solubility and Intermolecular Forces in Oxidation is now Water, Water, Everywhere because understanding “solubility and intermolecular forces in the context of water [makes sense because] so many reactions occur in aqueous environments,” she maintains.

And Solution Chemistry has become The Liquidation of Witches. “The phenomenon is from The Wizard of Oz, [when the Wicked Witch says,] ‘I’m melting!’ But she didn’t melt; she might have dissolved, but not melted. In the movie, she smokes when ‘melting.’ Smoke is suspicious; it was a chemical reaction,” Faulconer explains.

Last year, Faulconer and another Embry-Riddle professor created an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary science course called Science of Flight. “Students are assessed on all subjects: biology, chemistry, environmental science, geology, and physics. It’s a general education course, [created] to give non-science students more interesting options. It’s a really popular class and is now running multiple sections online. Student feedback is positive,” Faulconer reports.

“I enjoy finding the interdisciplinary connections,” she relates. “The College of Arts and Sciences is so broad! It’s easy to stay siloed and not reach out to colleagues. This has encouraged me to work more closely with instructors with whom I haven’t worked before. Now they’re asking me about the science slant to, for example, Edgar Allan Poe and his possible death by carbon monoxide poisoning.”

Linking Robotics and Physics

“I am teaching Conceptual Physics and Robotics together [to first-year high school students] during the same class period. That has compelled me to be creative, searching for ways to link robotics and concepts in physics,” says Kathy Snyder, science and math teacher at Mary Help of Christians Academy in North Haledon, New Jersey. “The current project students are working on takes a jigsaw approach (experts in physics and robotics), with each team comprised of one member from each class.”

Snyder challenged student teams to “identify the key issues to enhancing ROV [remotely operated vehicle] design based on depth-pressure, kinematic, and dynamics to better gather scientific data in deep ocean trenches.” She told students, “In addition to building a model to scale, [you] will identify financial issues, research and [develop], prototype, and market for [your] device. [You] will present [your] models and needs for financing to instructors at our school in a Shark Tank–style event.”

Snyder says she developed the idea for the project when she read an article about Jason and Medea, ROVs designed and built by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) Deep Submergence Laboratory. She also was inspired by “research vessels that had gone to the bottom of the Mariana Trench” in the Pacific Ocean in record-breaking deep dives. Snyder cites WHOI’s Dive and Discover website (https://divediscover.whoi.edu) as a resource in creating the project.

“Each team’s underwater ROV must be better than…[Jason and Medea],” Snyder instructed students. To accomplish this, the robotics partner’s primary job is to “assess the current weaknesses of Jason and Medea,” she explains. Students’ models also “must go deeper than any previous ROV,” including the ones that traveled to the depths of the Mariana Trench, and students must “describe the way [their model] handles the pressure challenges of increasing depth,” which is the physics partner’s primary job, she relates.

“Some students are new to cooperative groups. It’s interesting to see them move from the grumbling stage to beginning to understand,” Snyder observes. “Both the [physics and robotics students] had a cursory knowledge of their own disciplines, but I encourage them to share their strengths…We do an engineering talk to share ideas.”

While not all of the students “have been challenged to integrate knowledge from multiple disciplines in elementary and middle school, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) encourage critical thinking and problem solving. This approach is new for many students, [but this] is the way I’ve always taught,” Snyder relates. Her students “are getting comfortable with not knowing the answer” immediately, she adds. Along the way, she did “mini-lessons” on concepts students didn’t know, such as “scale models, for example: 2-D to 3-D,” she explains.

Part of her assessment of her students, she notes, includes whether “groups function effectively. Do they follow their agenda? What did they do when someone was absent, or when someone didn’t do their work?” During their presentations, students were graded on things like “eye contact, enthusiasm, and answering questions that they weren’t prepared to answer,” she relates.

“Giving them choices [about how to design their models] made [the project] more fun,” Snyder concludes. One team constructed their model from LEGO® toy building bricks, for example.

Using Play and the Arts

student-created "Germs Museum"
As part of Gigi Carunungan’s module on germs, third graders create “germs” from modeling clay, store them in closed containers to prevent contamination, and label the containers. The result is a “Germs Museum” for their classroom. Photo by Gigi Carunungan

Gigi Carunungan, chief learning architect of Playnovate—an offline and online science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics learning company for K–8—incorporates play and the arts in science teaching. She developed the Helical Model of Learning, which has five stages: Play, Explore, Connect, Imagine, and Remember. In a science module on germs, for example, third graders start by playing Tag with glitter of various colors attached to their hands with lotion. They spread “germs” by tagging their classmates and leaving glitter of mixed colors on their arms. (Alternatively, students could wear old clothing and aprons that could be tagged, Carunungan adds.)

“The game becomes a way to equalize the playing field because every student wants to play it, so everyone participates,” Carunungan maintains. “The rules are really about creating a socially interactive and physical dynamic,” she explains, because when students run around and tag one another, their arms now contain various colors, and the colors are blended. During the reflection time, “the teacher says, ‘That is like transmitting germs to one another,’” and offers no further explanation because the teacher is using the game as the phenomenon, she points out.

“Students remember this because it’s emotional. Emotional memory is more powerful than content memory in this case because the students have so much fun,” Carunungan contends.

In the next game, groups of students shoot water pistols at targets at various distances from them and observe the results. During reflection time, says Carunungan, students reach the understanding that the closer they were, the easier it was to hit the target. “The teacher says, ‘This is like [transmitting] germs. The closer you are, the more likely you’ll get them.’ The teacher is also showing students how to analyze data.”

In the module’s Connect phase, the teacher creates a graph of the length of students’ absences due to illness and the symptoms they experienced. Students learn how symptoms can be both the same and different for various people. After discussion, the teacher then explains what the word symptoms means. “Students understand the concept before the word. The concept is based on what they say [during the discussion],” she reports.

This activity “helps students develop a scientific mindset because they look  at evidence, patterns, and variables,” Carunungan observes. The activity is done in the Connect phase because the graph “connects to real-world experiences from students’ own lives…[They are also] using data to make conclusions.”

Students then create their own graphs using data from students in other classes. Back in their classroom, they are assigned to small groups and present the data they gathered. Each group merges the data into one graph. “This is what scientists do: Collect samples from different places and compare and analyze and synthesize,” says Carunungan. The teacher can then connect this phenomenon to the work of microbiologist Louis Pasteur.

In the Imagine stage, students use modeling clay to create their own “germs” for a Germs Museum. Then students create posters on avoiding germs and staying healthy and hang them around the school.

When this module has been taught, “there is a jovial atmosphere in the classroom,” Carunungan recalls. “Creativity is cultivating an atmosphere in the classroom [in which] learning is about curiosity, connecting, and figuring out, and the students can get excited [about learning].”●

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teaching Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.

The mission of NSTA is to promote excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all.

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About Debra Shapiro

Associate Editor of member newspaper, NSTA Reports (www.nsta.org/publications/nstareports.aspx). Editor of Freebies for Science Teachers (www.nsta.org/publications/freebies.aspx) and NSTA Calendar (www.nsta.org/publications/calendar) pages. Follow me on Twitter: @Debra_NSTA
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6 Responses to Encouraging Creativity in STEM Class

  1. Emma Hanson says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post, because it gave many ideas on how to keep science in the classroom interactive and open for creativity. Science can be one of those subjects that students may not be as excited for; so by giving students the opportunity to take a lead in their own learning, by giving them freedom to make their own choices, can allow their creativity to flow. This not only can get the students excited to learn, but it also incorporates interaction in the classroom which can increase their understanding and help them process what they are learning on a deeper level. Also, I think it is very important to make cross-curricular connections. This not only can provide more opportunity for creativity, but also allows for deeper connections to be made during the lessons. I really enjoyed reading this post, and I will definitely keep these ideas in mind for the future!

  2. Matthew Jacobson says:

    This blog post is a summary about what I like about science and hands-on activities that it brings. I, myself learn best when I have a tactile object to use, touch, and hold because I remember the activity better. While I do not push my learning style onto others, I do believe when something felt it is remembered better than when it is just seen with the eyes. I love the principle of the Helical model; Play, Explore, Connect, Imagine, and Remember. This allows students to be better in touch with the environment around them and allows more creativity to flow within the students’ mind. Along with these principles, students can explore more when an activity is hands-on. I love that the students are grouped into small groups because then each student can have a role within the group which helps a student experience a sense of responsibility, which helps with morals and teaches students to be held accountable for their portion of the activity. I also like that students can create connections and analyze the connections that they make. These ideas will come in useful when creating lesson plans and teaching the plans.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Emma and Matthew!

  4. Amanda Z Barnett says:

    I found this article to be a breath of fresh air. Recently I have seen so many pushes for more testing and the outright inhibition of creativity in and out of the classroom. I am a strong supporter of active learning as a whole, and the importance of creativity alongside multisensory learning is a wonderful aspect of the science classroom that needs to be expanded on. This is frankly a wonderful summation of information that has left me curious if you have additional resources that could be looked at or referenced to expand on the presented information further? I would love to delve further into some of these ideas and perhaps see what other untapped ideas could spark some new activity ideas for the classroom.

  5. Lindsey Simkins says:

    I loved reading this post about making science fun in the classroom and connecting it to many different areas. Personally, I love this type of teaching because I know that I would have learned so much more information if I would have had more opportunities like this. Also, I have noticed that students really do not realize that they are learning when they are involved in activities like this. I find it great that you allow your students the ability to take reasonability for their learning, what a great skill to start them on. I love the principle of the Helical model, that is something that I will have to try out in my future classroom. I look forward to reading more of your post on NSTA blog!

    Lindsey Simkins
    Wartburg College
    Elementary Education
    Class of 2020
    Reading Endorsement
    Phi Theta Kappa

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