Science as Creative Learning

The research on “emotional learning” in science presents an interesting model for engaging young people in science. As Dr Louisa Tomas Engel explains in the video  below, young people’s interest in science drops dramatically in the middle years of school. Tomas  Engel’s broader research draws on new pedagogical practices which aim to help young people see science as a creative endeavour, rather than a memory retention exercise. This research may be of interest to science educators, biodiversity researchers, as well as other scientists who are eager to grow public outreach.

Myth of the Science Lone Ranger

In one of her most recent publications, Tomas  Engel and her colleague Stephen Ritchie challenge the cultural myth that popular culture has cultivated about scientists; that scientists are a bunch of “lone rangers” who work in isolation and shun social interaction. In reality, science is less about individual discoveries, and more about collective innovation. 

Established researchers who work in the field, in labs or in other multidisciplinary contexts understand this, but the way in which science is traditionally depicted makes it difficult to engage students who prefer other styles of learning. In the long run, popular culture and the mainstream way we teach science makes it difficult to retain student interest.

Tomas Engel has been working on the “BioStories Project”  which targets children in Grade 4 (aged 9-10 years). In the first phase of the project, students must write a conversation between an expert and a novice who are discussing the biological hazards facing an Australian fire ant colony. This assignment requires that the student consider two positions: learning science facts (the expert) and then working out a way to feed this back in plain language (so that the novice will understand). It also requires creativity and empathy, so that the conversation is not a lecture, but a dialogue. 

In the second assignment, students take on the position of an expert who is theorising about the possible threats of the varroa mite (a parasite that attacks honey bees). This also requires learning facts, but extrapolating these into future scenarios. This is not simply about expressing opinions or writing science fiction. Instead, it is about weighing up scientific facts and demonstrating an informed and critical engagement of science knowledge.

The third assignment allows students to write about any biodiversity and sustainability topic. They can draw on the knowledge and skills they had learned during their research and hearing about the work of their classmates.  

In all these tasks, the students are encouraged to convey scientific information in everyday language. This requires not just the ability to collect and relay scientific factoids. but the additional skills of comprehension, critical thinking and creativity. Tomas Engel and Ritchie position this “hybridised writing.”

The researchers analysed the students’ emotional journeys during their project as well as video case studies of selected lessons. The students relayed their pride at having completed such a challenging but rewarding set of writing and learning tasks. Rather than being forced to sit through routine lessons, the students were encouraged to go out and learn through a creative process. This left the students feeling empowered and more interested in science.

Science Outreach as Creativity

Growing the BioStories project has yielded other insights on scientific innovation. Ritchie sought to turn BioStories into a national creative writing competition. The idea was first explored as an online project where schools could submit their best BioStories and other young people could vote on their favourite. The logistics proved too difficult without funding. Ritchie later organised a workshop where 250 students read their stories at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. There was much enthusiasm for the stories which convinced Ritchie that the idea was worth pursuing further. 

Ritchie sought to involve high profile figures. This required further funding and endless meetings to source philanthropic support. Trying to engage business, government and other people to support this science education project proved hard work. Ritchie’s experiences show how innovation is messy. It happens in stages, with contributors dropping in and out. It requires a lot of energy, leadership and mutual collaboration with other people. 

The researchers’ point is that the skills of sharing, negotiating and communicating BioStories amongst Grade 4 students are similar to the skills that educators and scientists use to communicate science to the general public.

Fostering positive emotional responses about science amongst youth requires that educators develop an openness to emotional learning. Generating similarly enthusiastic responses from the public and stakeholders who might fund innovation equally requires emotional learning. 

The cultural expectation is that you either have a passion for science or not. It is true that some people have a higher aptitude for science, but for many others, the education system and our cultural attitudes towards science are a turn off for many. Learning how to maintain enthusiasm for science is a skill that is best learned in the classroom. The trick is to show students how those creative science skills will help them in other contexts –  weighing up evidence in science careers, negotiation in other workplaces, and critical thinking throughout life

References

Ritchie, S.M., Tomas, L. (2013) ‘Designing an Innovative Approach to Engage Students in Learning Science: the Evolving Case of Hybridised Writing, in L. V. Shavinina (Ed.), The International Handbook on Innovation Education. Routledge. http://goo.gl/X4IDQw

Tomas, L., & Ritchie, S. M. (2012). Positive Emotional Responses to Hybridized Writing about a Socioscientific Issue, Research in Science Education, 41(1): 25-49. http://goo.gl/R8Xuyw

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