Realistic Creativity

Yesterday, chemistry students worked on an ocean acidity activity. After reading an article about coral bleaching and completing a lab, they began discussing and writing about connections and solutions. (The activity can be found here:

Listening to the groups, I heard one debating how to solve the problem of coral bleaching with a focus on the warming issue. Their solution was to build a giant refrigerator to put the entire Earth in. Though I knew this was not serious, it warranted my stepping in. I reminded them the solutions should be reasonable and realistic. They countered that they were being creative. This gave me pause.

Do students understand what we are asking when we want them to be creative? I fear they think creativity has to be fantastical or unrealistic, with a focus on what has never been done before. I want creativity to include reality so the solutions developed might actually be employed. I also want their ideas to include respect and forethought. What consequences will this solution have on the ecosystem? Will everyone benefit? Have each of the stakeholders been considered and respected?

The next table group I visited was stuck. So, we went back to the problem. This is such a critical step that we sometimes forget – return to the problem. In this case the problem is too warm of waters due to too much carbon dioxide. We talked about artificially creating ocean or wind currents to cool things. Again, this may be creative but is unrealistic. So, we tried again. I asked, what is the problem? “Too much carbon dioxide” was the response. I guided them to think about ways to reduce carbon dioxide. One of them went wide-eyed as he remembered plants use carbon dioxide and can pull it out of the atmosphere for photosynthesis. Bingo! This group then began discussing how to apply that to coral reefs and I moved on.

Sometimes, being creative means applying what you know works to a new situation. Sometimes, it means looking for a simple solution. Too often, students misunderstand our request to be creative. They want to apply or create a new technology. They want to go to extremes that are unrealistic, often to the point of absurd.

I want to encourage students, our future problem solvers, to approach creativity from a different lens. We need them to take care of this planet. We need them to recognize that solving these problems will require a different kind of creativity. We need them to look in the past, too, to find how people treated the land before degradation. Solutions might be right under our noses if we open our eyes and ears to the teachings of those that existed in harmony with our planet. Teaching students to respect worldviews different from their own might just encourage a new kind of creativity, too.

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