Wednesday, August 15

Selby Kia: Emphasis on creativity in STEM would boost student interest

(Angela Song/Daily Bruin)

(Angela Song/Daily Bruin)

We’ve all heard the stereotype: South Campus students are formulaic, mechanical and unappreciative of creativity. And North Campus students? Well, they’re apparently the opposite, but might have a harder time finding employment when they graduate.

As much as the UCLA Memes for Sick AF Tweens would have us think, however, creativity isn’t just necessary for those north of Franz Hall.

Even outside UCLA, creativity is not what comes to mind when people think of science, math and engineering. A paper from the 2015 International Conference on Interactive Collaborative Learning argued that the amount of creativity it takes to perform tasks within science, technology, engineering and mathematics domains is often overlooked, both in terms of how people see the majors and the curricula themselves.

This one-dimensional portrayal of STEM can be misleading to students and make them feel as if they have to choose between scientific thinking or creative expression.

That might be a contributing factor to why fewer students choose STEM as their field of study. While the number of students studying STEM nationwide has gone up, the U.S. will still need approximately one million more STEM professionals than what it is set to produce in the next decade to retain its current standing in the sciences.

Attracting students to STEM isn’t the only problem – keeping them there proves to be just as much of a challenge. Roughly 40 percent of students who intend to study STEM end up switching majors or dropping out entirely, according to the New York Times.

One contributing factor is that STEM students don’t have a chance to be creative in much of the coursework they take during their first year of school. Additionally, most students don’t get into research labs until after their first year or so, providing little perspective to help them imagine the possibilities of what they could do in STEM.

So it’s not hard to imagine why students often get disengaged with STEM. From the seemingly endless foundational coursework to the comparatively unforgiving grading scales, students are left to wonder: Will it ever get better than chemistry problem sets?

Emphasizing the creative payoff earlier on might help combat this disillusionment and keep more students in STEM long enough to see their first upper-division courses. UCLA’s STEM departments can do this by informing students of their options to take courses outside of the STEM curriculum and advertising courses that are designed to be more creative in nature, such as programming courses and labs – and they can promote this starting as early as New Student Orientation.

Fields such as computer science demonstrate the need for abundant creativity. Just as no two people construct a sentence in the same way, no two people’s code look alike. Students use different logic and methods to get to the same place, just like students responding to the same writing prompt will have great variation in their essays. Computer science students are well-equipped for tech startups, which require creativity and put their coding skills to the test.

And it’s not just computer science. Gerardo Franco, a class of 2018 mechanical engineering graduate student who loved painting and drawing before he went into engineering, said having vision is important. Franco added vision was the common ground for him between art and engineering.

“In engineering you need to have a good understanding of 3D perspective,” he said. “So in my CAD classes, which is 3D modeling on the computer, I was killing it because of my art background.”

In fact, students who are both creative and in STEM are stronger in their studies and work. Problem-solving is cited as the most important skill required by employers, and 58 percent of employers believe creativity skills will become more important in the next three years.

The creativity is there at UCLA, but students would not know it from the undergraduate sections of STEM departments’ websites, which tend to just list major requirements and brief descriptions of courses with little mention of the creative aspects of the field.

Add to that the notoriously brutal nature of some South Campus classes, and it’s no surprise that students tend to think the STEM life means a life spent in a cubicle.

It’s clear that the divide between the humanities and the sciences may permeate deeper into students’ lives than what meets the eye. If UCLA wants to produce more STEM graduates and well-rounded individuals, it should promote the innovation and experimentation involved with STEM and give students an incentive to stick it out through the dizzying, calculations-heavy introductory courses. Departments and professors alike can do STEM justice by encouraging the creative aspects involved, via project-based curricula, labs and interdisciplinary courses.

And while some STEM majors at UCLA even allow the option for students to incorporate the humanities as part of their requirements, this option is not well advertised. A handful of STEM majors, such as cognitive science, human biology and society, and psychobiology, provide the option for some humanities-based requirements, allowing students to design a cross-campus curriculum within their own major. But with little promotion and mention of interdisciplinary courses outside of a buried link on a specific department’s website, many students are unaware of the breadth of courses they can take in STEM, misleading them into thinking the field confines them to the South Campus stereotype.

Maybe it is easy to believe the stereotype of the unimaginative scientists because we are used to seeing the finished products of technology – our iPhones, Bird scooters and solar umbrellas – but not the work that went into them.

Innovation starts with a creative vision. It’s about time those saying otherwise learn to think outside the box themselves.

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