Jan 12, 2012

Creativity and Introductory Physics

Open-ended, "creative" assignments can be an effective way of making science relevant to students, but there are more direct ways to exercise the creativity needed to excel in the fields of science and engineering.

"Creativity and Introductory Physics" is the title of an essay in the January, 2012 issue of The Physics Teacher on the importance of giving physics students opportunities for creative, divergent thinking (page 42 if you've got it handy).  In the essay, the author, a professor at Union University in Jackson, TN, illustrates how he tries to incorporate creative assignments into his courses, in topics ranging from magnetism to wave-particle duality. The teacher offers an example of a creative assignment where students are given an option to "create an original story that is critically dependent upon the concepts of Einstein's special theory of relativity," among other options.

For some students, assignments like these can bring seemingly irrelevant and abstract ideas into focus. In a general interest course about the weird world of modern physics offered at my alma mater, the final project for the course was quite similar in nature to this one, and I knew many humanities folks who expressed relief that they could receive "quantitative proficiency" credit for writing a poem about the impossibility of faster-than-light travel! But such assignments can sometimes bear only superficial relevance to the physics being studied, and I believe there are applications for creative thinking that more directly exercise the creativity that is essential for being a good scientist. One example is the student-designed paradigm labs that form the introduction to most units in a Modeling Instruction course. Another is the requirement of "Design Criterion" labs in the IB Physics Internal Assessment, where students must develop an investigation into the relationship between two variables of their choosing. (One student of mine investigated the relationship between the mass of iron filings mixed into a consistent sample of play-doh and the resistance of the dough. Another looked at the relationship between the time a spaghetti strand was left soaking in cold water and the applied force from a spring scale required to break that strand... One written example of such a project can be found here.)

In this short excerpt from a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson on divergent thinking and creativity, we learn that an individual score on some quantitative evaluation of divergent thinking generally declines drastically from age 3 to age 25:

I'd love it if Robinson gave us a few more details about this test (he refers to a book called "Breakpoint and Beyond" - I'll let you know if I end up picking it up), but this little result tells us exactly what we should be fighting in our physics classes - as our students get told how things work, they learn to see fewer possibilities in the world around them, to look outside themselves for ideas. I can't think of a better argument for teaching physics in ninth grade! Ninth graders are enthusiastic and creative thinkers, potentially unburdened (in some environments) of the pressures of getting the answer right as quickly as possible so that they can move on to the next question. What better time than early high school to reinforce to our students that science is something that is done with your own two hands?  What better tools to accomplish this than tangible instruments like the meter stick, the stopwatch, and the spring scale? (and the force plate, and the motion detector, and the video camera...)

One Response so far

  1. jolesa says:

    This is truly a great read for me,and I hope to see more articles from you.

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