Enhancing Deep Learning through Creative Projects in the Science Classroom

27 Jun

Learning Science, Creatively

In Fall 2001, I was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire enrolled in genetics with Dr. Yui Tim Ho, who was prone to wild gesticulations during his animated lectures. During a unit on translation – the process of forming a chain of amino acids using messenger RNA as a template – he rolled the TV cart out of the corner, removed an old VHS tape from its sleeve, and pushed it into the VCR. Worn from years of repeated use, a grainy video began to play.

This video: 

In the video dozens of students (circe 1971 at Stanford University) act out the choreographed dance of translation – a string of students hold hands, representing the mRNA molecule; another group of students undulates across the ground, representing the large ribosomal subunit approaching the mRNA molecule; another set of students represents tRNA, the molecule that delivers the amino acids. It has dance. It has music. It has poetry. It has the 70s. If there were a science pedagogy hall of fame, this video would have been inducted long ago, for I seldom encounter a student of biology who hasn’t seen it. (If you haven’t yet clicked on the link above – science student or not, do yourself a favor and watch it, for both personal and pedagogical inspiration.)

Given the example above, science educators in higher education have clearly appreciated the blend of science and creativity in developing pedagogical tool for decades, which is as it should be: Science is a deeply creative field. Every issue of Cell, Nature, Science, and many other scientific journals, will contain numerous colorful models – each often the synthesis of hundreds of studies. Creating models is at the core of the scientific enterprise, and pedagogical articles note that incorporating creative works into the higher education classrooms generally motivates students’ deep learning.

With these factors in mind, I implemented a creative project as part of my biochemistry course at Carleton College during Fall 2015. Below I reflect upon my experience with this assignment: describing of the project, noting expectations and assessment, reflecting on selected projects, and seeking thoughts from you all as colleagues in teaching and learning.

What is a Creative Project?

Some will rightly argue that a final paper could be considered a “creative project.” Not only is writing a creative endeavor, but lab reports and papers in the science also include presentation of data or the creation of models to accompany the paper. However, at least in the context of a biology department, when I say “creative project,” it’s understood that I’m talking about something else.

In my assignment description, I tried to open up students’ thinking about how to imagine, propose and develop a creative project. Below is an excerpt from the assignment description in the class syllabus:

“The goal of the creative project is to give students an opportunity to synthesize what we have learned in this class and express it in a creative way. This could be something visual – for example, a video, drawing, painting, sculpture, etc. – or it could consist of other media, such as an audio piece or a written work.”

I also encouraged the possibility of collaboration: “If you have an idea that might require more than one individual, it is possible for students to work together contingent upon my approval.”

For those students who were reluctant to take on the creative challenge, I included the option to write a paper on a topic in biochemistry – only two out of forty students chose this option.

Why Include a Creative Project?

Most of my core science classes include a final assignment that allows the students to reflect upon and apply the concepts they have learned throughout the term and apply them to an individually-identified topic. A hallmark of this assignment is that students have the freedom to explore beyond what we’ve addressed and explored in the class. I have learned that allowing students choice to explore topics about which they are passionate gives them greater ownership and investment in the course. In my classes, this synthesis project historically has been a final paper.

My upper-level courses are typically structured in a way that this assignment scaffolds from literature analysis and discussion assignments done throughout the course. Throughout the term, students learn to read primary literature in groups, and then the final paper assignment tasks them with literature analysis on an individual basis. In this way the assignment serves as an assessment of their primary literature reading ability and as an opportunity to explore a topic related to the course – extending, applying, and personalizing the course content.

When designing my biochemistry course at Carleton College, I knew that a core component of the course would be exploring metabolic networks. I pondered how to best reinforce student conceptualization and retention of these metabolic networks. I paused and dug into my teaching toolkit. What were some approaches I had yet to test out? Initially, I thought that this might be a great opportunity to employ some sort of concept mapping, allowing students to synthesize the course content into a single unique document. From there I quickly latched onto the idea of creation. A creative project would allow the student to marry the course content with her or his creative vision.

I had vague memories of seeing various creative projects online. Particularly, I remember seeing a YouTube video from immunology students who had been assigned to act out the interaction of specific immune cells. “Maybe someone will do something cool like that,” I thought. I wanted poems. I wanted dance. I wanted art.

What to Offer as Guiding Expectations?

Assigning a creative project is an exciting exercise for me, one involving trusting in a student’s vision. The less constrained that I make the assignment the more I get to see the student’s perspective in the finished work. Finding ways for students to bring their perspectives to the classroom is a core of my teaching philosophy, and this creative project supported that nicely. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, and I was fine with that.

I believe that the open nature of the creative project is essential. I also know, and found in first hand experience, that students are often uncomfortable with this freedom. Many had never been tasked with such an activity. Many didn’t really know what “creative project” meant. To address these concerns, I engaged in talking with and supporting students throughout the process of creating the final project. Early in the term, I encouraged students to think about what projects they might want to do. As the term proceeded, I talked with students to help them form their ideas into projects they could move forward. I tracked student progress through email correspondence and in-person meetings. Most of this guidance was minimal, consisting of giving my approval to topics, and providing minor comments to strengthen the final project ideas students proposed. Of course with a project such as this, students had questions about how to earn a good grade on the project.

How to Assess?
(and what’s the effect of assessment on creativity?)

How can we as educators promote students to explore their creative depths when the balance of assessment hangs over their heads? Can students trust us to appreciate their attempt to step out of their comfort-zone and create something ambitious? As a science educator, up to that point in my career, I hadn’t thought deeply about how to assess creativity. Does assessment impede student risk-taking and ambition? This is a discussion I would love to have with faculty in the visual arts. If that’s you reading right now, please contribute your thoughts in the comments section below.

Given my concerns of squelching creativity, for my biochemistry course I made this assignment relatively low-stakes – the creative project accounted for less than 10% of their final grade. As described above, I envisioned this assignment as an exercise in synthesis of the information covered in the course. Students were also being assessed by formal exams and quizzes.

Assigning a creative project was an experiment for me. Therefore, I decided to make it only small component of the class. I was excited to see what students would do with the freedom. When the end of the term arrived, I saw that students took diverse approaches to their creative projects. That diversity was exciting and rewarding for me to see. We celebrated their projects with a day of “show and tell” at the end of the class that had students sharing and exploring one another’s works.

A Selection of Projects

To give readers sense of the work that I received in the biochemistry course, below are some examples that illustrate the diversity of the students’ creative projects.

There was the rap about glycolysis set to “Ice Ice Baby” that went viral amongst the Carleton students, and is embedded below. Three student groups submitted raps, including one that was performed live in my office.

Many students were compelled to reimagine the material in the form of children’s books. Cute artwork accompanied simplified explanations of important molecules or biochemical processes. One book represented the energy molecule ATP as a superhero. One book told the story of HIV infection and targeted therapeutics as a medieval tale of wizards and warriors representing various biochemical components in the system.

One student had previously taken a book binding class said, “I never thought I would use those skills again.” She wrote, illustrated, and bound her hardcover children’s book for this creative project:

Image 1 Aaron

Two students created a series of cards. One set consisted of laminated Pokemon-style trading cards, with cartoon versions of molecules with their attributes listed below them. The other (pictured below) was series of ID cards with key information about the molecules:

image 2 Aaron

In what I thought exemplified the beauty of the creative project, one student reimagined glycolysis and the Kreb’s cycle as a scarf. The stitches, braids, and beads represent carbon atoms, enzymatic reactions, and energy carrying molecules. To the uninitiated, this would just look like any other scarf, but the scientific accuracy is wonderful: 

image 3 Aaron

Your Thoughts?

At the end of the term, I was sharing some of the most exciting projects with my colleagues at Carleton College and found that many of the biology faculty had at one time or another tried their own version of the creative project. The creative project provides the opportunity for students to synthesize course material and incorporate their own vision in the final product. These creative projects also reinforce the role of creativity in science. Creative skills are an essential part of scientific activity, whether they are used to synthesize data, to create new conceptual frameworks, or to more effectively communicate ideas and information to other scientists and the general public.

In closing, I would love to get input from the teaching and learning community about your experience with creative projects in science classrooms. Feel free to respond to some of the following prompts in the comments sections below, or tweet your ideas using the hashtag #scicreate:

  1. Describe the nature of the creative project(s) you use or have used in your course.
  2. Describe your reasoning for including a creative project.
  3. Does the creative project replace a more traditional assignment (eg. a final paper), or do you include the creative project in addition to one or more additional projects?
  4. Describe your assessment of the creative project.
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4 Responses to “Enhancing Deep Learning through Creative Projects in the Science Classroom”

  1. Andrea Worthington 27 June 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    In my Animal Physiology course for juniors and seniors, I have had success in asking students to explain ONE figure (or table) from a primary paper on a specific area of Physiology to a specific non science audience. Each student choses an animal taxa (all vertebrates and groups of invertebrates covered in their textbook) and they had to find two primary papers, one on the topic of gas exchange or blood properties (respiratory pigments, CO2 buffering etc) and the other on Thermoregulation or energetics.

    They had to pick their audience, find a primary paper and choose one figure (or table) from the article. They then had to figure out how to explain this one figure (or table) to their chosen audience.

    I have kept past examples to inspire them. I have had students create: articles worthy of the NYtime science section, Ranger Rick, Magic School bus scripts, fliers for whale watches, illustrated cartoons, children’s stories, scripts of imagined radio interviews with the authors, and had the voices of the animals explain their physiology, etc. Some are illustrated (full cartoons) and others are just wonderful writing.

    My more recent students have become quite nervous, less confident….they have been trained to please the “teacher” instead of pleasing themselves and need me to spell the assignment out more. They are not willing to try and take risks.

    I still think it is a worthwhile assignment but I would love to reduce the hand-holding.

    • aaronbroege 27 June 2016 at 4:12 pm #

      Thank you for providing your feedback Andrea! I love that your assignment specifically involves translating specific information from a primary source to a non-science audience. Audience target is something that I thought more about when I taught my science writing course this past spring.

      I think that providing some previous examples is great, and I’m sure helps to allay some of the students’ fears.

      You comment that “more recent” students have been more nervous. So when you started doing this, did you not encounter this hesitance? Do you think something has changed in education that has caused this shift in students over the time you have been doing this assignment? In my writing class, I found that students had become adept at writing to certain audiences or using certain writing structures; but, when pushed to communicate to a different audience, they really struggled with that.

      I too find myself making a conscious effort not to hand-hold too much. I try instead to reassure them that it’s okay to explore their own ideas. I think that this urge in students to “pleasing the teacher” and the students’ reluctance stems, in part, from the knowledge that ultimately they are assessed and receive some numerical grade, and that’s the bottom line for them.

      • Andrea Worthington 27 June 2016 at 4:44 pm #

        Thanks for your kind words. So many of our biology majors are hoping for careers in medicine and other post graduation paths in medicine. We have a lot more insecure students constantly checking-in. (Examples: Can you go over my answers to the homework before I hand it in? Can you read my paper before I hand it in?) With this pressure, they are no longer risk-takers and a creative assignment, somewhat open ended (despite a rubric), is scary. This insecurity appears not just for my writing assignments but also for quizzes, midterms, lab reports, etc.

        For this assignment, I have stopped allowing rewrites since the students then depend on my comments to get the grade they want and do not give me their best the first time! I encourage students to come discuss the figure or table that they chose with me if they have questions before they start writing. Sometimes, I might suggest a different figure or table from the same article if they are really lost. Sometimes I help them find another article (usually from the citations of the article they are trying to understand) that might be easier for them to understand.

        In the not so distant past, students just embraced the assignment with excitement.

  2. aaronbroege 30 June 2016 at 8:58 am #

    Andrea, thanks for your response. My colleagues and myself have encountered some of this same insecure/reassurance-seeking behavior in some of our students. In discussions with my colleague, the general feeling is that in some of the extreme cases we need to be more direct and explore ways to build student self-confidence; because, in some examples, the students are high-performing, but still display these insecurities. As you point out, this issue extends beyond the context of the creative assignment. I see it as an interesting discussion to continue.

    For your assignment, perhaps you could consider some initial graded assessment on the first draft. This would give some more weight to that draft and hopefully increase the quality.

    Thanks for your input!

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