Creativity has been the long-standing missing ingredient in education. Companies have been desperately seeking it since the last depression. Creative thinking leads to innovation, and innovation leads to success. Sure, science, technology, engineering and maths are necessary, but without the initial creative stimulus for solving a problem or imagining the possible, nothing would ever be accomplished.

Jon Kamen of the Rhode Island School of Design explains STEM is missing a crucial ingredient. Kamen and many others are suggesting that STEM be changed to STEAM, for science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.

I like the idea of adding the arts to STEM to get at the idea that creative problem solving should be encouraged. But as Vince Betram points out adding an A to the acronym might be missing the point.

I’m often asked why science, technology, engineering and math are the only words used to create the acronym, and when Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the STEM organization I am proud to lead, will change STEM to STEAM, STREAM or STEMM — incorporating art, reading or music into the acronym. If that is the debate, we are clearly missing the point. It’s not about adding to the acronym, but instead adding to the relevancy of learning. It’s about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context. It’s about nurturing students’ curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM isn’t simply the subjects in the acronym. It’s an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning.

One crucial point that adding the arts to the STEM might gloss over is encouraging students to learn from one another. In the arts in particular the belief in the myth of the lone genius is very strong. Getting students working together rather than sitting alone at their desks is crucial for preparing them for the challenges they’ll face in the real world.

Uncertainty is celebrated

Uncertainty is a very bad thing. It’s evolutionarily a bad thing. If you’re not sure that’s a predator, it’s too late…

The question “why?” is one of the most dangerous things you can do because it takes you into uncertainty. And yet, the irony is that the only way we can ever do anything new is to step into that space. So how can we ever do anything new.?

Fortunately, evolution has given us answer, and it enables to address even the most difficult of questions.

The best questions are the ones that create uncertainty. They’re the ones that questions the things that we think to be true already. It’s easy to ask questions about how did life begin or what is the extent of the known universe, but to question what we think to be true already is really stepping into that space.

So, what is evolution’s answer to the problem of uncertainty? It’s play. Now play is not simply a process. Experts in play will tell you that actually it’s a way of being. Play is one of the only human endeavors where uncertainty is celebrated. Uncertainty is what makes play fun.

Beau Lotto explaining why play helps us answer the most difficult questions. He goes on to claim that the characteristics of play are exactly the characteristics that make a good scientist.

From there, he wondered if children would make great scientists. It turns out they do. The student of Blackawton Primary School in Devon came up with, designed and implemented a scientific experiment. The results of which made a valuable contribution to science and were eventually published in a scientific journal.

Amy O’Toole, one of the students involved in the project, is an impressive speaker. Her part of the talk alone makes this a TED talk worth watching.

Water rocket

Water rocket

We found the idea for the water rocket in Handy Dad (Amazon UK, Amazon US). It’s a book we’ve had for a couple of years, and this was the first project we did out of the book. We’ll definitely be doing more.

The water rocket has been a big hit both with my son and a number of his friends (as well as some new friends we made when firing the water bottle into the air). I usually wind up pumping air into the rocket and they run around screaming gleefully and chase after it, as can be seen in the video below.

What we used

  • Empty 2 liter soda bottle
  • Wine cork
  • Inflation needle
  • Bicycle pump

What we did

  • Cut the cork so that it’s slightly shorter than the inflation needle
  • Stick the inflation needle through the cork the point should just stick thorugh
  • Fill the bottle about 1/3 full of water
  • Put the cork and needle into the bottle
  • Attach the bike pump to the needle
  • Pump some air into the bottle and…
  • Lift off!

Lift off

There are a couple of optional things you can do.

Make it look more like a rocket

We cut stabilizer fins and a nosecone out of a cereal box and glued them on with a hot glue gun (an idea we got from Science Sparks. This definitely made the bottle look more rocket-like, but the didn’t last for more than a couple of launches. You can see the first fin coming off in the above photo.

Make a launch pad

That was pretty simple. We used the instructions in Handy Dad for this. It involved a piece of wood, some screws, a saw and a screwdriver.

The first time we made a water rocket we were so excited, we didn’t bother building a launch pad. We improvised one using the frame of my son’s toy stroller (the kind you push a doll around in). It worked pretty well. It made for a more vertical launch than the launch pad we eventually made. The launch pad’s angle means the the rocket flies further from the pad, but it doesn’t fly as high as it does when using the improvised stroller launch device (or ISLD for short).

If you wanted to, you could go all out and follow NASA’s instructions for building a water rocket launch pad. We haven’t done this, but it looks like a fun project, as does the launch platform featured in Popular Mechanics.

What we learned

Sometimes a wine cork is too small to fit snugly in a 2 liter soda bottle. We wrapped some electrical tape around the cork, and this did the trick.

The water rocket launches when the pressure in the bottle reaches 40 psi. This is remarkably consistent. It seems to remain the case no matter how much water we use or what type of cork (natural or synthetic or wrapped in electrical tape).

Not all inflation needles work with our bike pump. I bought some more inflation needles at a discount sports store after the first couple of water bottle expeditions. They didn’t work with our bicycle pump (which works with both schrader and presta valves). That’s what I get for being cheap.

Why you should try it

This was an incredibly easy project that was a lot of fun. We’ve now launched water rockets several times, and I expect we’ll do it a several more times. It’s encouraging that we’re able to have this much fun for the cost of some soda and a bottle of wine.

We’ve also been able to use this to talk about air pressure and what makes rockets work, so it’s educational as well as fun. NASA claims that the 2 liter soda bottle is greatest physical science teaching tool ever created, and I figure they know what they’re talking about.

Imagination in all of its applications

I found out that in science in all its application what is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its application. The ability to form concepts with images of entities and processes pictured by intuition. I found out that advances in science rarely come upstream from an ability to stand at a blackboard and conjure images from unfolding mathematical proposition and equations. They are instead the product of downstream imagination leading to hard work during which mathematical reasoning may or may not prove to be relevant. Ideas emerge when a part of the real or imagined world is studied for its own sake. Of foremost importance is a thorough, well organised knowledge of all of that is know of the relevant entities and processes in that domain you propose to enter.

E.O. Wilson’s Advice to Young Scientists is a no-nonsense presentation of the wisdom gained from Wilson’s long career as a scientist and teacher. He offers several principles on which to base a scientific career, much of which applies beyond the sciences.

Science is people

Science is a process and a staggeringly massive, ever-changing, expanding body of knowledge. Science, with its many fields and applications, is diverse—as are the scientists doing the work.

Science is about facts and people. Science is done by people and it is often done to serve the interests of people. We do laboratory tests, field experiments, computer simulations, etc. so that we can understand the world around us and ourselves. How can we use this information to build, start, stop, and/or save something or someone? Even the most basic research, which may have no immediate application, is pursued to increase our knowledge. If that isn’t [about] people, I don’t know what is.

Dr. Raychelle Burks does a fantastic job of rebutting the idea that girls generally aren’t interested in science because it’s not about people.

I love that she starts off by saying it’s a process and a body of knowledge. I’ve been saying for years that science is a process of discovery and a body of knowledge, and that a big part of the problem with the way science is taught in our test-driven, curriculum-lead education system is that we teach the body of knowledge with very little reference to the process of discovery.

The best science teachers I had highlighted the process of discovery, either by retelling the stories of the scientists responsible for the body of knowledge or by encouraging us to experiment on our own (without giving us the answer we were supposed to arrive at).

Basic and applied research

While the primary focus of attention in this panel is on basic research, I feel compelled to observe that basic and applied research go hand-in-hand, informing and stimulating each other in a never-ending Yin and Yang of partnership. In some ways, applied research is a form of validation because the success (or failure) of the application may reinforce or contradict the theoretically predicted results and the underlying theory. Basic research tries to understand and applied research tries to do and often one must pursue both in the effort to uncover new knowledge.

via Vinton G. Cerf: "The Value of Investment by the U.S. Government Cannot Be Overstated" – Scientific American.

This reminds me of the point that Tom D. Crouch makes in The Bishop’s Boys: that the Wright Brothers were engineers rather than scientists.

Mutable laws

One hears the term “Laws of Physics” as if punishment awaits anyone or anything that dares to break them. And, yet, we know these so-called laws may be only approximations of reality – limited by the accuracy of our measurement tools and experimental capacity to validate their predictions. Every scientist must be prepared to cast aside or revise a pet theory if measurement and observation contradict it.

Another from Vint Cerf’s written testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. This has echoes of George Box’s assertion that all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom

Failure is the handmaiden of wisdom in the scientific world. When we make predictions or build systems based on our theoretical models, we must be prepared for and learn from our failures. Understanding the reason for failure is sometimes even more important than positive results since it may pave the way for far deeper understanding and more precise models of reality. In the scientific enterprise, the freedom to take risk and accept the potential of failure makes the difference between merely incremental refinement and breakthroughs that open new vistas of understanding.

from Vint Cerf’s written testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which was reviewing the federal government’s role in research and development.

Technology precedes understanding

Engineering was the key. The Wright brothers functioned as engineers, not as scientists. Science, the drive to understand the ultimate principles at work in the universe, had little to do with the invention of the airplane. A scientist would have asked the most basic questions. How does the wing of a bird generate lift? What are the physical laws that explain the phenomena of flight?

The answers to those questions were not available to Wilbur and Orville Wright, or to anyone else at the turn of the century. Airplanes would be flying for a full quarter century before physicists and mathematicians could explain why wings worked.

How is it possible to build a flying machine without first understanding the principles involved? In the late twentieth century, we regard the flow of technological marvels from basic scientific research as the natural order of things. But this relationship between what one scholar, Edwin Layton, has described as the “mirror image twins” of science and technology is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, technological advance has more often preceded and even inspired scientific understanding.

pp. 174-175, The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Tom D. Crouch

This is something I’ve often wondered about: whether it was possible for a technology to be based on an inaccurate model. When I’ve asked friends about this, often over a pint in the pub, they’ve looked at me as if I was crazy.

If Tom D. Crouch is to be believed, the scientific models that the Wright Brothers based their plane on were not inaccurate, they simply didn’t exist.

This is not to disparage science. A better understanding of why wings work has lead to better, faster and safer airplanes.

What interests me here is the a similarity between this and Don Norman’s claim that technologies precede our need for them. There Wright Brothers, Wilbur in particular, certainly lend credence to Norman’s statement that “technologists invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.”

Darwin: What’s the Big Idea? (Part 1)

Yesterday, Joanne and I went to see the Darwin Big Idea exhibition at the Natural History Museum. It’s a fairly large exhibition, and we only managed to see a little over half of it. Nevertheless, I’m already very impressed. We’ll be returning to see the other half later this month.

The exhibition feels very comprehensive, nevertheless, it feels very accessible. The reason for this is that the exhibition concentrates on several aspects of Darwin’s story. There is the science, obviously, about which more later. The exhibition also allows you to follow an adventure story: a bright, young man gets the chance of a lifetime to see the world. And there is also the story of Darwin the man and his relationships, both within the scientific community and with his own family.

What most impressed me was the gradual way in which the exhibition introduced Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Darwin’s letters and notebooks take centre stage here. The exhibition picks out key moments in the voyage of the Beagle and explores how each of those moments contributed to the slow genesis of his “big idea”. It is absolutely fascinating, and very well done. At the end of the section of the voyage of the Beagle, the idea of natural selection (or at least of evolution) seem almost obvious. At the same time, you emerge with an appreciation of Darwin’s hard work and eye for detail.

The design of the exhibition also deserves a mention. It is perfect. It feels simultaneously Victorian and contemporary (think McSweeney’s / The Believer with a slight steampunk edge). The graphics are colorful and eye-catching, without being over the top. The brass-edged glass cases in the Beagle section feel suitably nautical. A detail as simple as the faux stitching along the edges of the labels in the document cases captures a sense of a time when most documents were hand-written.

I have only two small criticisms of the first half of the exhibition.

The first is not really a criticism of the exhibition itself. We were told that an hour and half would be plenty of time to see the whole exhibition. It wasn’t. I’d recommend giving yourself at least three hours if you want to take in the whole thing. Fortunately, the folks at the Natural History Museum were kind enough to give us vouchers to come back to see the second half of the exhibition.

My second criticism — and it is really more of a regret — is that some of the scientists featured in the short film at the end of the Beagle section sounded almost defensive. On second thought, that ever so slight tone of defensiveness may have been appropriate given that the second section explores the reasons that Darwin took almost 20 years to publish his theory. From my brief glimpse at that part of the exhibition, it also explores the ongoing reaction to his theories.

Despite these small criticisms, the exhibition is a must see. The amount of research and hard work that has gone into it is worthy of Darwin himself. It is certainly worth the £9 entry fee.

Update: We also visited the London Ice Sculpting Festival, which Joanne has covered on her blog and I uploaded some photos to flickr.