June 2011

Fostering creativity in science

The impetus for Ragsdale’s efforts can be traced back to his youth, when he sat through many prepackaged science lectures that seemed to lack passion and energy. “I remember one instance where the topic was the Krebs cycle,” he notes, “and the lecturer made it seem so very cut and dry, like there was nothing left to discover. 

“And I was thinking, what are the lingering controversies with this pathway? What are the boundaries that scientists today are exploring? That’s what I wanted to hear.” 

John Jurkas, a microbiology major at the University of Michigan, presents his creative project: a puzzle with pictures that demonstrate examples of emergent properties in science and art.  

Years later, when he was a biochemistry professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Ragsdale read a National Science Foundation report that bemoaned the percentage of students that were leaving science and moving to other disciplines because they felt their science courses were not engaging enough, that courses felt geared too much toward vocation as opposed to education. 

“The other problem is that many of our brightest students sell themselves short by choosing a major and eventually a career that does not foster their creativity – that, in the words of Carlos Castaneda, lacks a heart.” 

Ragsdale teamed up with a like-minded colleague in Nebraska’s history department, Patrice Berger, who headed the honors program, and developed his idea for a class aimed at studying the role of creativity across the disciplines of science and art. An accomplished musician as well as a scientist, Ragsdale knew a lot of individuals in the science and arts departments who could come in as guest speakers, and the class became a big hit. 

In fact, the class was one of the harder items to leave behind when Ragsdale moved to Michigan with his wife, Ruma Banerjee, in 2007 to take on a new position, though he is happy to hear that Berger and NAS member Jim Van Etten have continued running the Nebraska course to great acclaim. 

“But after just one year, I missed teaching the class so much I had to bring it back,” he says. When he presented the idea to Tim McKay, head of the honors program at Michigan, he realized that he had found a new home for the course. 

Given Michigan’s strong academic reputation in both arts and sciences, he figured rounding up potential speakers wouldn’t be a problem. “And at the least, I figured as a new member of the Michigan faculty it would be a good way to meet some of my colleagues.” 

In the years since the course’s revival, Ragsdale has tweaked the original guest speaker format to provide a further sense of engagement with the students. 

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