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?” 

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. 

For example, after each lecture series, the students choose a specific topic from the discussion and write a reflection about that class. “It’s not just a recap or a response paper,” Ragsdale explains. “I want the students to come up with something different and original, such as relating the lecture to something personal in their own life or following up on an argument raised in the talk and either defend it or defeat it.” 

"A Manifesto of Simplicity," by Julien Lafortune, an economics major at the University of Michigan. 

Then, in alternate weeks between the guest speakers, Ragsdale teams up with instructors from Michigan’s Sweetland Writing Center and divides the class into small workshop groups that collectively discuss and edit their reflections. 

The editorial back and forth provides a great opportunity for the students, who, like the speakers, come from a wide range of academic departments, to interact with their peers and learn more about other disciplines. It also prepares them for their culminating course project, in which they creatively expand on a concept presented during the course. Projects have included statistical surveys assessing the role of intuition in a creative work, multimedia investigations of the importance of uncertainty in the creative process, drawings illustrating simplicity or attention, musical compositions exploring the nature of listening, platonic dialogues on the nature of creativity and films depicting giving. Basically, students may develop their projects and reflections in any genre that seems appropriate, including visualizing the concept of harmony through cupcakes. 

Though Ragsdale initially was unsure if the course in Michigan could match the success it had in Nebraska, he holds no such doubts today. At the beginning of each semester, his small class, with an enrollment limit of 22, typically ends up with a waiting list twice that size, while at the end of the semester, the Creativity in the Sciences and Arts course regularly receives the highest marks in year-end reviews. 

“I’ve had people ask me if I can teach this course to a thousand students each year and not just 22,” he jokes. And while he won’t go as far as switching the class to a big auditorium lecture, he is open to considering ways to bring the course to a wider audience. 

However, he is worried about the loss of intimacy if the format is changed to accommodate more students; furthermore, he already has a full plate managing an active research group and teaching a graduate-level course in critical analysis of the scientific literature. 

“As much as the students hopefully get out of this course, I get even more,” he says. “I get to take part in lively debates, meet some fascinating university faculty, and see young people discovering their passion and expressing their own creativity.”

Nick Zagorski (nicozags@gmail.com) is a freelance science writer.

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