June 2011

Fostering creativity in science

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.”

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