How can we use creativity in STEM education? Find out here! From creative keynotes to inspiring paper presentations, HEASTEM18 had it all. Don’t miss out; catch up with some of the innovative approaches presented for making STEM teaching more engaging by reading this blog post, including:
Using ‘design thinking’ principles in the STEM curriculum.
Applying a reverse-engineering, problem-based learning (RE-PBL) methodology to engineering design teaching.
Drawing on creative writing techniques to increase the impact of STEM publications.
The 2018 HEA STEM Conference was all about creativity and, as you can imagine, this was expressed in many different ways! So, how can we use creativity in STEM education?
The conference opened with an excellent keynote from Dr Gareth Loudon, a Director of the Centre for Creativity and Principle Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Gareth spoke about integrating ideas from ‘design thinking’ into the STEM curriculum. The talk started with audience participation in an activity to transform a strip of paper with 2 faces and 4 edges into something with only one face and one edge. The activity highlighted our natural inclination for solving problems using experimentation and interaction with the real-world. This was followed up with a wide-ranging exposition of ‘design thinking’ practices and research, covering everything from product design to creativity. Gareth also explained the importance of having phases of divergent thinking followed by convergent thinking within a human centred design process – the overall process is organised into four stages: Inspiration (divergent), Synthesis (convergent), Ideation/Experimentation (divergent), and Implementation (convergent).
Gareth concluded with a number of insights into how design ideas might be integrated into the STEM curriculum, including an analysis of challenges and opportunities for the sector. For Gareth’s recent blog post about creativity in STEM, see: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/blog-entry/creativity-stem. The keynote on day 2 was then equally impressive, with Floriane Fidegnon sharing her inspiring journey into STEM, including the role played by creativity inside and outside of the classroom.
Beyond these great keynotes, the conference encompassed workshops, ‘how-to’ sessions, paper presentations, networking over coffee, a conference dinner, poster presentations and exhibitor stands.
Inspiring Paper Presentations
There were many stimulating paper presentations throughout the two days of the conference – these generated lots of great discussion and provided new insights for using creativity in STEM teaching.
I was fascinated with the paper presented by Dr Darren Williams, a Reader in Developmental Neurobiology at King’s College London. Darren spoke about the use of ‘embodiment exercises’ to teach developmental neurobiology. Here, students use their bodies to act out and ‘become’ different biological elements, such as a network of neurons or a molecular process in a cell. Darren and colleagues found that introducing this approach allowed students to gain a more interconnected understanding of the concepts taught, as demonstrated by improvements in concept mapping by students. It was surmised that embodiment allows students to access more imaginative modes of thinking that facilitate a deeper learning of the concepts presented.
Dr Zoran Jelic, from the College of Engineering at Swansea University, presented an interesting approach to engineering design project teaching. His case study focused on aerospace engineering and utilised a reverse-engineering, problem-based learning (RE-PBL) approach. The RE-PBL approach was inspired by real-life engineering – there can be times when a professional engineer needs to work out the functionality, specifications and operational limits of existing hardware or software. In terms of teaching, the RE-PBL approach introduces students to complicated design problems without them having to start with a blank piece of paper. Such an approach provides students with the motivation, support and scaffolding to dig into complex problems without the need to front load the project with inaccessible and unwieldy theory. This is not to say that theory is unimportant, but such an approach to engineering design allows students to access appropriate theory in context and when required. In fact, within my own practice, I have found a reverse engineering approach to teaching process simulation to be highly successful in supporting student skill acquisition .
I was impressed by Dr Lorraine Smith’s talk on the use of flipping, play and digital technologies to promote active-learning within the School of Life Sciences at University of Sussex. Lorraine shared a number of innovations she had introduced into her teaching, including a whole-class card game to teach cell ultrastructure, videos explaining key concepts in advance of lectures to promote self-paced autonomous-learning, digital technologies to facilitate collaborative working, and in-class polling to provide students with immediate formative feedback on their progress during face-to-face teaching sessions. The result of all this was highly-active learning environments in class and online. Lorraine’s talk generated lots of interest and discussion – it certainly provided food for thought and made me reflect on how I might adapt my own teaching practice to include more opportunities for active learning.
Posters with a Difference
The poster session included a range of high quality contributions, including ‘industry-ready graduates through curriculum design’, ‘enhancing student engagement through assessment transformation’, ‘digital technologies to support student retention and engagement’ and many more. What really stood out about the poster session was the opportunity for presenters to give a brief overview of their work. The posters were organised into four themes, and during the poster session groups of about 10-15 people moved around the posters for each theme. Presenters had a maximum of three minutes to present their work before a bell sounded and the group moved to the next poster and presenter. The format worked well; delegates appeared extremely engaged and the tight timing resulted in presenters giving animated descriptions of their work. It was generally felt that we got a lot more out of listening to presenters explain their posters compared with just reading them. A full list of the posters, presenters and abstracts can be found here.
The theme of creativity continued at the conference dinner, not with experimental cooking, but with a challenge that required us to think about a Lego sculpture in three dimensions based on 2D drawings! Having been awake for nearly sixteen hours at this point, I was initially not inclined to participate. However, when I spotted the Lego bricks I dived straight in and, much to my satisfaction, quickly worked out the solution! This activity nicely reinforced one of the messages from the first keynote – ‘that as humans we like to solve problems through experimentation and interaction with the real world’.
Creative Writing in STEM
At first sight, you might not think that creative writing and STEM go together, but a ‘how-to’ session followed immediately by a workshop certainly made the connections clear. The ‘how-to’ session was led by Max Adams, Consultant Fellow at Royal Literary Fund, who took us on a journey of discovery to identify and exploit the figure of the protagonist in our writing. Max explained that the protagonist is the main vehicle for any narrative journey; they allow us to setup a tension at the start of our writing (literature review and aims/objectives/problem statement) and then to construct a plot that resolves this tension by unravelling and transforming the protagonist as the story progresses (our findings). Max went on to explain that STEM researchers who use the concept of the protagonist in their writing find thinking about, structuring and executing their writing easier and more rewarding, and potentially create greater impact publications!
Following straight on from the ‘how-to’ session, Dr Mhairi Morris, Julia Reeve and Dr Alke Gröppel-Wegener ran an interactive workshop that allowed participants to explore visual and tactile approaches to supporting academic writing in STEM. Several creative techniques were presented that could potentially be used in any discipline to break down student barriers to writing. A full report on the workshop is the subject of a recent blog post. During the workshop, I was fascinated to learn that Mhairi uses blogging as a way to make her subject more accessible to her students in advance of lectures. For example, in one post she describes cancer cells as the teenagers of the cellular world. To me, this seems like a great way to make difficult concepts easier for students to understand and to help them get more from the lecture.
HEASTEM18 was an excellent event, with many opportunities to discover, explore and reflect on how creativity can be used in STEM education. Please share your own thoughts, insights and experiences of using creative approaches to STEM education in the comments section below. Many thanks go to the HEA, all of the presenters, and all of the organisers for putting together such an outstanding conference.
1. Belton, D. J. (2016). Teaching process simulation using video-enhanced and discovery/inquiry-based learning: methodology and analysis within a theoretical framework for skill acquisition. Education for Chemical Engineers, 17, 54-64.
Dr Daniel Belton is a University Teaching Fellow (teaching-focused Reader) in the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. He uses innovative teaching approaches to deliver modules covering analytical science, scientific researcher skills and process engineering to students on a range of degree courses, including Forensics, Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. He also teaches on the university’s PGCHE course for new lecturers, regularly contributes to conferences and workshops in relation teaching and learning, and has published papers focused on chemical engineering education. In addition to his pedagogic research, Daniel has research interests in graphene-based composite materials, analytical chemistry and process simulation. He is a Chartered Engineer, a Member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.