June 2011

Fostering creativity in science

Unique undergraduate course shows how imagination informs scientific discovery. 

How to describe Stephen Ragsdale’s Creativity in the Sciences and Arts class in one word? 

Cupcakes, perhaps? 

At least one student thought that developing a novel recipe for these tasty treats serves as a fine example of how science and art act in harmony. The science involved testing hypotheses about the proper blending of various ingredients (fats, sweeteners, flour, eggs, leaveners, flavorings, etc.) that react upon heating to create an edible piece of art with the proper shape, texture and taste. The art came from the personal touches, such as the special mix of spices and decorative icing, which provide the cupcake with a unique taste and appearance. It became a perfect example of hypothesis-driven art/science. 

A discussion on the chemistry of baking may not be on the syllabus in a typical biology class, but it’s exactly the outside-the-box discussion that makes Ragsdale’s class, part of the honors program at the University of Michigan, so unique. 


Josh Buoy, a junior in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts at the University of Michigan, presents a piece of multimedia artwork that reflects the collective creativity of the people in his life. 

Ragsdale’s seminar-style class, which he teaches every fall, features guest lecturers who come in and, through an energetic talk and Q&A session, discuss their work and how creativity influences it. 

In some cases, like when music instructor and jazz musician Geri Allen talked about the importance of improvisation in both jazz and in her life, the connection between work and creativity seemed obvious. 

However, as the students (and sometimes even Ragsdale) surprisingly learn throughout the semester, creativity permeates all manner of academic pursuits, as demonstrated by faculty, from departments like chemistry, physics, history and dance, who have graced the class over the years. In his class, students learn quickly how greatly imagination informs scientific discovery. Atmospheric scientist Sushil Atreya described his work on a NASA mission to send a probe into Jupiter to detect the elements in its core and learn about the nature and origins of the universe. Physicist Mark Newman, author of “The Atlas of the Real World,” discussed how he uses statistics and cartography to examine how we perceive our world. Students also begin to recognize how much planning and precision is required in a work of art, as when poet A. van Jordan revealed his difficulties in developing the right voice for his award-winning book “M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A” and the importance of following an impulse to tell the story in reverse for eventual acceptance of this work by the publisher. 

“Science, whether it’s biological, physical or social, is fundamentally a creative process,” says Ragsdale, a professor of biological chemistry. “Why can’t we engage students and teach them that fact?” 

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