Creativity in Science Teaching

29 April 2017 - By: Sara Marsham

Creativity in Science Teaching

Creativity in science teaching
Symposium delegates, organisers and speakers.

By Sara Marsham (Newcastle University)

The SEB+ Section hosted its biennial symposium, Creativity in Science Teaching, at Charles Darwin House, London from 12–14 December 2016. Prof. Graham Scott (University of Hull) and Dr Sara Marsham (Newcastle University) worked alongside Oliver Kingham from the SEB to organise and host the event.

Despite its quirky focus, keynote speakers were queuing up, abstract submissions from all over the world were received, and around 40 delegates attended the Symposium, several travelling from Europe and others from as far as the States. From the start there was a great feeling amongst the delegates and a good mixture of people teaching biosciences within academic institutions and those who worked in the creative arts. Unfortunately I do not have enough space in this report to detail everyone’s contribution so check out the storified tweets on #SEBCST16 for a fuller account.

Playing to learn

After a welcome from the organisers, our first keynote, Mark Langan (Manchester Metropolitan University), really set the creativity scene with his session on Adult Play and Learning – he started by handing round a pass-the-parcel for us to play with. Each layer revealed a journal article page with a quote relevant to his talk; the ‘unwrapper’ received a sweet from Mark’s childhood and read the quote to the group. The game really kept us entertained: we were curious to find out what the next quote (and sweet!) would be. We thought this was an approach that could be integrated into our teaching and help students take the key learning outcomes from our sessions.

Taking a stand

Mark was followed by Roy Erkens from Masstricht University, Netherlands, who commented that the traditional layout of our venue was not conducive to creative learning! We then received some insights into Roy’s approach to active learning and finding ways to avoid low energy engagement and unequal contributions from students. Roy shared his ‘Education that Moves you’ Project, where standing tutorials encourage both the teacher and students to be more active; students engage by clustering around the whiteboard to share ideas, which changes their mindset as physical activity stimulates the brain. Roy advocated this approach throughout the Symposium by regularly standing and moving around during the presentations and this spread to other delegates!

Seeing is believing 

Our international contribution continued with Pam Megaw joining us from James Cook University, Australia. Pam delivered two presentations around creative teaching; her first talk focused on instructor creativity and how we can use role play, simulations and case studies, and picked up on the importance of being active in the classroom. The key challenge here is how to assist learning for kinaesthetic learners without losing competent students. Pam’s second talk, on day 2. outlined using student videos as a form of assessment. She discussed ‘digi-explanation’ – the use of students’ current digital skills to produce short videos, enhancing their own learning of complex new subjects using the student as teacher model.

Learning together

Day 1 finished with a workshop facilitated by Lucy Tallents (University of Oxford). We arranged ourselves in groups to consider what challenge or goal we would like students to tackle collaboratively. Possibly swayed by the overall question, our group decided on the importance of getting students to understand that collaborative learning means working together, not working independently alongside each other. We developed this idea and considered the learning objective: what resources/skills would we need to implement it? What key guidance would students need? And how would we assess/provide feedback? After 10 minutes we sent an ambassador from our group to another and had a few minutes to share our idea and receive feedback. The ambassador brought the feedback back, and we had the opportunity to refine our original idea. The workshop culminated in our sharing our idea with everyone. This approach was very well received and not only got us thinking about the challenge Lucy had set us, but provided insight into ways we could use collaboration in our teaching, as it would be possible to embed this in large and small group teaching across all disciplines. The second day saw a change in focus with a keynote from Gemma Anderson (Falmouth University) introducing us to morphological relationships between animals, minerals and vegetables and using drawing to recognise patterns in nature using isomorphology theory. The focused attention to detail that drawing brings about helps students to make careful observation. Gemma’s approach struck a chord with many of us, as, in this digital age, students always ask why they cannot just take a picture using their phone.

Self direction

Our next keynote, Mark Feltham (Liverpool, John Moores) , touched on the issue of creativity in assessment. There are many ways in which we teach creatively, but then assess using reports, essays and posters. Mark explained how he teaches experimental design and statistics using the makers approach – students choose how they want to demonstrate their understanding and knowledge allowing them to take ownership through the stages of ‘think – make – learn – share’. The student projects he described were as diverse as building a robot to map badger burrows, modifying a drone and creating a breathalyser to determine levels of impairment. Our penultimate keynote bucked the presentation trend and went PowerPointless. As a creative writer John Wedgwood Clarke (University of Hull) started with a personal anecdote and shared work from his Leverhulme Trust funded project. He described using autobiographical journeys to allow time for personal reflection in our scientific journey – he asked undergraduate students about their founding moment: when did they realise they had become a ‘biologist’? This is something we can relate to – we start in academia as a subject-specialist in our discipline, but when do we realise that we are ‘educators’? John also stressed the importance of allowing students to find their own words when describing new things. By doing this and then learning the ‘right’ words as a second (and essential) stage, student learning can be enhanced.

Peter Lumsden
Peter Lumsden ( University of Cental Lancashire)

Creative connections

A range of presentations focused on collaborations between art and science and how curiosity declines as we go through the educational system, with students taught how to answer questions but not how to ask them. Several presenters encouraged science and art students to collaborate on projects, allowing them to value their strengths and recognise the importance of working together, despite some science students not valuing creative skills. Many of the presentations discussed how we can encourage creative self-efficacy in our students and encourage them to consider their perceived ability to create novel and useful ideas and/or products through mechanisms such as laboratory experiments or product design. A student co-presenter, Pallavi Ramsahye (University of Westminster), shared her experience of an art/science collaboration project – this was a fascinating presentation in both content and style; Pallavi was ‘interviewed’ at the dais by the project academic lead enabling them to develop the presentation as a conversation right before our eyes, another excellent example of creative teaching!

Our final keynote, Chris Willmott (University of Leicester), demonstrated how students create videos as a type of authentic assessment. When he proposed this approach one colleague was concerned that students would not be able to say anything meaningful in five minutes – hmm, no comment! Chris gave us tips on what to do if we use student videos in assessment and shared some student submissions that are available from his website, BioethicsBytes. The Symposium ended with a discussion on how we can encourage colleagues to adopt more creative/engaging/active approaches to teaching, and how we assess creativity in our teaching. Throughout the Symposium we were invited by Peter Lumsden (University of Central Lancaster) to give responses to these questions using MeeToo, which informed our discussion. Delegates highlighted what they would take away and incorporate into their delivery and share with colleagues. We spent three days with colleagues who were enthusiastic, engaged, inspirational and willing to try different things. There is definitely scope for us all to be more creative in the delivery of our teaching and/or in how we assess our students.



Category: Teaching and Learning
Sara Marsham

Dr Sara Marsham

Sara is a Lecturer in Marine Biology and Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) for the Faculty of Science, Agriculture and Engineering at Newcastle University. Sara’s subject-specific research interests are in intertidal ecology and plant-animal interactions in the marine environment. She is very active in teaching and supervising undergraduate students within her academic school. From a pedagogic perspective, Sara is also very interested in assessment and feedback and how HEIs engage students with this aspect of their university studies. She is a previous Education and Public Affairs Section President’s Medallist, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a UKPSF Professional Standards Advisor at Newcastle University. She founded the Newcastle Educators Network and is involved in many learning and teaching initiatives. Sara is a member of the SEB+ Committee and co-organised the SEB ‘Creativity in Science Teaching’ meeting held in London, December 2016.

Twitter: @sara_marine