Creativity: An Essential Component in STEM Learning

Special Focus : Why STEM Education Matters?
Designing an Effective Training Program February 27, 2014

If having innovative adults is a goal, then it is important to have creativity as an essential component in the education of young people.  Innovation is “all about ideas.”  Encouraging creative thinking in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) must begin early and remain a central emphasis throughout schooling, so it becomes the natural way of thinking.   When innovation is encouraged, educators and parents value ideas and provide opportunities for children and young people to share their ideas and celebrate new connections.  

An important first step to encouraging creative thinking is to have educators establish a learning environment that supports the exploration of content and engages students in learning.  Teachers engage children in learning experiences in which they “do science” as opposed to reading about science.  The children observe and then describe what they see.  They are encouraged to wonder and to ask questions.  Children learn that it is important to learn from mistakes.  They learn to think like scientists.  They learn in an environment that encourages thinking and problem-solving.  Only then, are young people on a path to exploring content in interesting and innovative ways.

Information is certainly basic and valuable as students learn about STEM; however, relying on right answers does not lead to innovative solutions unless linked with creative and thinking.  Today the internet provides easy access to right answers or information, but it is the human mind that poses questions and explores new connections.  Questions stimulate curiosity, a very important characteristic for lifelong learners to have.  Creativity will flourish in classrooms in which it is encouraged.  Otherwise, creative ideas and connections will not be shared; and they will remain invisible.   

Teachers must provide opportunities for people to make connections across the disciplines.  Interdisciplinary study provides a rich source of ideas.  Interdisciplinarity in STEM entails knowing enough about various disciplines to make connections among the disciplines or working with a team of specialists in various STEM disciplines to encourage connection-making.  Another approach focuses on interdisciplinary connections that could come from any disciplines.  Yet another prominent strategy is adding the arts to STEM to produce STEAM.  There is no single way to facilitate interdisciplinary connections: It is a wise strategy to not limit learning but to encourage wide ranging learning in various content areas.  

Teachers must have the mind-set that they are the facilitators of learning rather than simply purveyors of information.  Although information is vital to have in order to be innovative, it is not enough to have a storehouse of knowledge.  Rather, students must be prepared to “do something” with the information.  It is essential to combine productive thinking with essential content.  Productive thinking combines critical and creative thinking skills.  Neither critical thinking nor creative thinking is adequate alone, but they gain power in combination.  It is essential to generate lots of ideas, to be fluent in ideation, before employing critical thinking skills and narrowing the choices.  Idea generation and then making decisions go together to make effective decision-makers and problem-solvers.  

Unless teachers clearly state that they expect and will honor creativity, they are not likely to see creative approaches to products or various perspectives in viewing the content.  Children and young people must be encouraged to be creative, as innovation does not just happen.  They must have opportunities to be playful with ideas, tinker, and explore connections.  Teachers must guide students as they learn to apply creative and critical thinking skills.  They also must provide directions to facilitate the exploration of ideas and time for students to put those productive thinking skills into practice.

If productive thinking begins early, it likely will continue throughout a lifetime.  It will provide the framework for approaching learning.  Inquiring individuals will question or wonder throughout their lifetimes when observing birds, establishing a healthy lifestyle, solving world problem, and whatever else they are thinking about or working to solve.  It will be natural way to approach problems and decisions.