DEVELOPING  CREATIVITY  IN  SCIENCE  AMONG  OUR  YOUTH

MANILA, May 5, 2005
 (STAR) STAR SCIENCE By Gisela Padilla-Concepcion, Ph.D (First of two parts) Science as a field of human knowledge

To develop creativity in science, first we must understand what is unique about science as a field of human knowledge. Science involves the study of the physical or material world. In science, we study all aspects of Nature, which consists of all material things, including man and the environment. The scientific method, which is considered a refinement of the human cognitive process, is traditionally described as a chronology of activities which begins with a hypothesis to solve a problem or explain a phenomenon in the physical world. This is followed by observations and experiments to test the hypothesis, and it ends with the hypothesis being proven right or wrong. Deductive and inductive reasoning, analytical thinking and synthesis, are exercised throughout this process.

Today science is conducted in a less structured way and generally involves the continuous interplay of empirical, experimental and rational methods. This is aimed at understanding the underlying principle, mechanism or function of a physical, chemical or biological phenomenon. The scientific facts or "truths" discovered and propounded by scientists must be shown to be verifiable and reproducible, being drawn from conclusions obtained using methods which are as objective and quantitative as possible. Indeed, through the years, certain scientific "truths" have been overturned or disproved by new ones. We say that science is not infallible or that it is self-correcting.

Depending on the field of interest or specialization in science, and there are countless today, one method may be used predominantly over the others. Thus, physicists can either be experimental physicists or theoretical physicists. The field of biology, generally considered an empirical science in the past, now benefits from a great deal of experimentation, manipulation, and mathematical modeling, due to the development of new techniques in cell biology and molecular engineering and the availability of very powerful instruments and computers. The trend in science seems to be toward understanding the complexity of Nature at greater depth and breadth, from the systems biology level down to the molecular level. Moreover, scientists in specialized fields are coming together under multi-disciplinary research programs, and mathematicians are interacting more with scientists. Thus, we see the growth of fields such as Biophysics, Molecular Medicine, and Computational Biology, to name only a few. These new combined perspectives and "multi-tasking" efforts have led to deeper insights and greater creativity in solving problems in science. For example, today, biological principles and biological structures are being used as models to solve engineering problems in a more environment-friendly way. (Spider silk fibers, mussel glues, and deep-sea sponge fibers are being used as models to produce ropes stronger than steel, glues that can stick to non-stick Teflon, and better optic fibers, respectively.)

Creativity in science

Human knowledge, the foundation of human culture and civilization, builds on old or existing knowledge, particularly in science. The term "research" underscores the idea that "new" science builds on a huge existing body of scientific knowledge that is well-documented. Age-old scientific principles, as well as newer scientific findings, are found in books and journals and are available to young students for them to understand and analyze, and subsequently to test, contest, disprove, expand, refine, and modify. We build on what we already know. Basic education in mathematics and the sciences equips our youth with the ability to be creative in science, to change it and move it forward, to make new discoveries and add these to basic scientific knowledge, and to develop innovative technologies or applications that could benefit mankind. Advancements in science have occurred at an accelerated or geometric pace in the last 100 years, far exceeding those from the time discoveries by early man were first recorded.

In school, we would like our youth to be provided with the basic foundation to make discoveries possible. Serendipity, as it is often said, favors the prepared mind. Many important discoveries were made, seemingly, by chance or luck. A classic example is the discovery of the antibiotic penicillin by the microbiologist Alexander Fleming, who had found a mold or fungal overgrowth inhibiting a Staphylococcal (bacterial) growth among a pile of Petri dishes that had been left for days near the sink in his laboratory. It took Fleming’s trained eye and scientific mind to realize that what he had observed could be very useful in treating bacterial infections.

Being creative in science is tough and requires brain power. Creativity involves seeing new patterns and connections, putting together parts to make a whole and breaking the whole to make new parts. It is viewing something from a different perspective, considering possibilities or alternatives, or thinking unconventionally – thinking straight when the pattern is fuzzy, thinking nonlinearly when the pattern seems straight! It is looking at the forest beyond the trees, and also at the trees that make up the forest. It is seeing as essential what is invisible, but also seeing what is visible as essential. Science, described by Robert Pirsig in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is the "high country of the mind," and being creative in science means seeing and doing new things from this vantage point. Persons who can be creative in science

n anyone equipped with the proper tools and background to do science be creative in science? It would seem that there are scientists who are naturally creative and those who are not very creative. If one had a big brain, with lots of convexities (folding and refolding) in the cerebrum, implying that one has many interconnected neurons, then a high level of creative activity could occur in one’s brain. And with a highly developed frontal lobe, which is the seat of emotions such as strong motivation and passion, then one may have been born with the "brains" or the genes to become creative. In short, the creative trait is, first and foremost, anatomic, genetic or inborn.

The creative process in science begins with the mental processing of a lot of information gathered from the physical world and ends with a tangible result – new knowledge, a new creation, product or discovery. For all these, one needs a superior mind or a powerful brain with a dense circuit of highly interconnected neurons that can process numerous stimuli and generate equally numerous responses quickly, almost instantaneously. Mental processing is not done "in series" or "in parallel," but through a complex circuit or network of neurons.

And what role does motivation, passion, enthusiasm or excitement play in the creative pursuit of science? Creative scientists seem to possess these strong emotions which serve as the driving force for the sustained, sometimes lifetime, obsessive pursuit of a field or subject of interest. This excitement or passion is evident during talks or seminars given by eminent scientists. James Watson, famous for solving the structure of DNA in the mid-50s, writes about his passion for science in a book entitled A Passion for DNA.

Can creativity in science be learned or nurtured? Creativity as a trait may be largely genetic, but to a certain degree, stimulating and training a person to think creatively, especially someone young, can make that person more creative. Because of neural or brain plasticity, constant stimulation in animals results in long-term potentiation, the equivalent of memory and learning in humans, and we may presume that something similar happens in humans. Thus, we may be able to nurture creativity among our youth by continuously providing them with the necessary stimulation and training to think creatively. The first five years of life are the most formative years, when the learning curve is steepest, and when a child’s skills or talents for language, the arts, and even perhaps for scientific observation, can be awakened. Children can become "naturalists" or Nature lovers, and may grow up to become scientists, by being taught to observe the ways, cycles and balance of nature, early in life.

Can creativity in science be stifled or discouraged? There are societies or cultures where convention and tradition can stifle creativity in the young. Creativity or the lack of it is partly cultural. We know of countries which have consistently led the world in technological inventions and revolutions because individuals in these countries have enjoyed the freedom to think innovatively and defy established rules and procedures. On the other hand, there are countries where a rigid, hierarchical educational or academic system tends to discourage creativity and promotes adherence to tried-and-tested solutions to problems. Students who are inclined toward the physical sciences and mathematics are attracted to become engineers rather than scientists and these countries produce excellent engineers and engineering products. In some instances, individuals who lack innovative skills resort to copying inventions or "pirating" the ideas of others.

Can an untrained, unschooled individual, someone who is not science-literate, be innately creative and make significant discoveries in science, just as an unschooled or non-formally trained artist can produce good art work? Can a person "create something out of nothing" in science? The answer seems to be a qualified "no" because scientific discovery requires a proper background in mathematics and the basic sciences, although technical or vocational education can provide the background for simple inventions. One can also think of special cases such as "herbal specialists" in ethnic communities possessing "traditional knowledge," who formulate cures for various ailments based on simple observations and experiments made with medicinal plants that grow around them. We could consider these unschooled "herbolarios" or "naturalists" as possessing some degree of scientific creativity. (To be concluded)

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Gisela Padilla-Concepcion, Ph.D. in Chemistry, is an associate professor at the UP Marine Science Institute, Diliman, Quezon City, where she teaches graduate courses and heads the Marine Natural Products Research Group. E-mail at gpconcepcion@yahoo.com.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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