Creativity Vs Procedure

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a coworker. We had both spent the morning judging a local middle school science fair. Part of the judging involved voting on which project earned first, second and third place for each grade. This proved to be uncharacteristically difficult, as each judge had very different opinions. After a couple of hours, it became apparent that there were two main opinion camps about what made a good science fair project.

One favored projects that were unique and creative, but sometimes had a few failings in their procedures, and the other favored projects that closely adhered to best scientific practices, but were mostly really not original in concept in any way. I bet you can guess which camp I fell into. Needless to say, deciding on which projects would advance to the next step took longer than expected. If we weren’t all so polite, things might have become heated.

On the drive back to the office, my coworker and I discussed what had happened. I was (am) thoroughly in the camp that valued originality over strict procedures, and she was thoroughly in the other. In the 10 minutes it took us to drive home, we had not swayed the other’s opinion (shocking, I know). Since then, I have continued to think on the subject, and I think it’s an important topic for us all to think on.

What is more important in STEM fields – creativity or perfect procedure? (Disclaimer – I am not saying that good scientific procedure is unimportant. Obviously it is – you can’t produce good research without good procedure. Having bad procedure = no credibility or definitive support for your results. I know. I am asking what is more important. Very different question).

Many people believe the myth that creativity and the scientific method are opposites. Science is based on empirical data and rigid adherence to accepted scientific procedure, therefore creativity has no place in it. I firmly believe that way of thinking could not be more wrong. In my opinion, good science cannot happen without creativity.

Think of science like cooking. There are two chefs. One can follow a recipe, the same recipe, perfectly, over and over and over again. Each time, the same recipe, identical to the way it was done before, for years and decades. No deviation. They are masters at following this recipe. Every single measurement, every single knife cut, unparalleled in quality. However, they do not come up with new recipes. Just use the same one that their parents had used, their grandparents had used, their great grandparents had used, etc.

The other chef is the opposite. They are constantly trying something new, constantly creating different flavor combinations, new ways of cooking an ingredient, and generally pushing the boundaries of their field. This chef does not make the same dish twice, but rather thinks, ‘how can that be done better?’ ‘If I look at this recipe from a different angle, what can be achieved?’ ‘If I substitute this ingredient with another, what would happen?’ They started out with some shakey techniques, but over time improved their skills until they too could measure and cut things accurately. Simultaneous to improving their chef skills, they continued to innovate and therefore developed multiple breakthroughs in their field that have changed their field forever.

Which one is the better chef?

This analogy is a bit simplistic, I agree. But it makes my point. The world of STEM is constantly changing, constantly innovating. Why? Because of creativity and originality. Recently, studies on the effects of teaching the scientific method as a strict set of procedures actually reduces a child’s concept of real world science and widens the gap between their perceptions and professional STEM work. “Cook book labs” have been shown to hinder students’ ability to design original experiments. What is the commonly heard complaint about students today? That they are unable to come up with questions. Unable to express an original idea. They do not question the world around them. Rather, they look for guidance. They wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. This needs to stop. We have plenty of people who can follow rules. We do not have enough independent thinkers.

You can teach anybody to follow good scientific procedures. The children at this science fair were no older than 13. They have plenty of time to tweak their methods and learn good scientific procedure. What cannot be taught? Innate creativity and originality. You can encourage it, help them practice and strengthen it. But you cannot teach it. Sticking strictly to the same, tired old projects done over and over and over for generations will not get a man on mars or discover the cure to cancer. Original, novel ideas that push the boat out are what will.

Yes, good procedure is important. I’m not denying it. But if/when it comes down to voting between a project about playing music to house plants with perfect procedure, and another retrofitting remotely controlled cars into solar powered cars with a couple of variables uncontrolled for, I know which one I will vote for every time. One tells me a student can read and follow directions. The other tells me a student has an innate ability to question and test the world around them. One knows how to be a good follower. The other knows how to be a good leader. Basically, to sum up my long windedness, my point is thus: What good is being able to follow scientific procedures well if you can’t come up with a testable question in the first place? Without the initial, creative question, there is no experiment in the first place.

What camp do you fall into? I would love to hear what your thoughts are on the topic!

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