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Cultivating Creativity in 21st Century Science Classrooms: The Fourth "C"
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By Andrea S. Foster, PhD


Much of the 21st Century teaching and learning rhetoric emphasizes the development of the three C’s:  Critical thinking, Communication, and Collaboration in our 21st Century learners.  While these skills are indeed paramount to the education of all learners and our state standards do an excellent job of promoting their significance, I believe there is an opportunity to emphasize a highly important, often over-looked, fourth skill – Creativity -- in science classrooms of today. Texas science teachers provide the inspiration for our next generations of learners to develop the necessary scientific habits of mind such as curiosity, informed skepticism, and openness to new ideas and play a most significant role in establishing a science literate citizenry -- Americans who have the capacity to solve critical world problems of today.


The July 2010 issue of Newsweek claimed that we are currently in a creativity crisis – American creativity scores are falling.  Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary made this discovery after analyzing 300,000 Torrance  scores of children and adults.  According to Kim, the decrease is very significant, with the most serious decline apparent in children from Kindergarten to sixth grade (Bronson and Merryman, 2010).  The potential consequences are far-reaching.  The necessity of human ingenuity is unquestionable.  They report an IBM poll in which 1,500 CEO’s identified creativity as the most essential leadership competency of the future, yet creativity is decreasing among Americans at time when it is most vital to the health of our future. “Creativity is necessary not simply to sustain our nation’s economic growth, but also to help solve significant world problems like saving the Gulf of Mexico, bringing peace to Afghanistan, and delivering health care” (p.45)

So what is to blame for our waning creativity among school children?  Likely culprits have been identified.  Some claim it has to do with the number of hours kids spend in front of their screens -- televisions, videogames, iPADs, iPhones, and other digital devices.  Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools.  Bronson and Merryman (2010) claim there is no concerted effort to nurture creativity in all children in schools today.  

Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized speaker and creativity in education expert, makes an entertaining (and profoundly moving) case for creating an education system that nurtures creativity rather than undermining it.  Robinson points out the many ways our schools fail to recognize – much less cultivate—the talents of many brilliant people.  “We are educating people out of their creativity,” Robinson observes (Robinson, 2007).  He points out many ways that our schools fail to recognize the talents of many brilliant people.  Robinson claims that our schools are organized around an outdated factory model system where children are processed like automobiles or widgets.  The number of children who are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and are medicated is alarming.  He claims that these children, who are living in the most stimulating and exciting time on Earth, are being, “anesthetized.”  We are using exactly the wrong approaches to educating these children. They should not sedated or ‘anesthetized’; but, stimulated through the arts or what he calls, “Aesthetic Education” or education in the arts.  It is the arts that open up minds to creative thinking and problem solving.


As an observer and evaluator of science teacher candidates in elementary and middle school classrooms in area school districts, I have noticed that very little time is left for children to express themselves creatively.  More than one third of the school day is dedicated to test preparation which mostly involves completing worksheets and paper pencil benchmark testing.  My teacher candidates struggle to negotiate the “ideal” inquiry-based classroom which they experience in the science methods classroom with the “reality” of the public school classroom where the emphasis is on worksheets and tests.  They are often frustrated and disillusioned by the pedagogical disparities they face.  The paradigm of our schools today must be shifted to make classrooms come alive, particularly at the elementary level, so that children are encouraged to think critically, solve problems, collaborate, and create.

Although there is a current creativity crisis in America, previous eras (the one in which I grew up in) included the wonderful world of Walt Disney and drawing in Anti-Coloring Books   where imagination and blank pages represented a world of endless possibility.  Classrooms of today should be places where there are concerted efforts to nurture the creativity of all children, particularly in the sciences. The challenge is to design and model rigorous and relevant science experiences and inventive pedagogies for teaching science that come alive in the elementary and middle school classroom with the hope that prospective elementary and middle school teachers use these strategies with their students.  When did the science journal become more about cutting and pasting pre-made foldables and less about writing down authentic observations, original scientific musings, and illustrations?

The lack of creativity in schools, according to most teachers, stems from pressure to meet curriculum standards.  Researchers (Bronson and Merryman, 2010) say creativity should be taken out of the art room and put into the homeroom.  The argument that we can’t teach creativity because kids already have too much to learn is a false trade off.  Creativity is not about freedom from concrete facts.  Rather, fact finding and deep research are vital stages in the creative process. With well-designed pedagogy, and project-based learning, curriculum standards can be met.

Creativity is not just about art projects, it is about the thinking process students use to solve problems in all fields.  Bronson and Merryman (2010) suggest that students need problems that require them to first fact-find, and then move to problem finding, idea-finding and then solution-finding.  This way, they are using divergent and convergent thinking to arrive at original solutions. The good news is that students can learn techniques for uncovering and leveraging their creative potential.  Schools are essential in helping students learn these techniques. Teachers are key to making this happen.


In my experience as science (and art) teacher over the past three decades I have accumulated a few everyday activities that promote creativity in the science classroom.  These teaching strategies and practical activities work for teaching K-12 students about science and university students about science teaching. What is common among these examples is that they are problem driven, emphasize critical thinking, have hands-on experiences and are taught in the context of topics that students confront in their own lives. The following are examples of activities that boost creative problem solving in science classrooms.

It All Begins with a Droodle

When my students enter the classroom, they are confronted with a drawing on the chalkboard (now a whiteboard) called a, “Droodle.”  Droodles are both a drawing and a riddle.  They are simple, yet complex and can be quite humorous.  The idea of a droodle is to kick start creative thinking, to warm up the brain to encourage out-of-the-box thinking – even though droodles are always constructed inside a box.  Children enjoy solving these droodles. Often their ideas were far more creative than the answer given in the Roger Price’s book of droodles.     This type of warm up activity provides the necessary mental practice for problem solving and decision making.  The following is a sample droodle.

Science never sucks!

Figure 1. A sample Droodle – A spider performing a handstand.

An excellent way to inspire creative problem solving and introduce the inquiry process is to begin the school year with a discrepant event or a simple problem to solve like the classic egg-in-the-bottle demonstration.  On the very first day of class, skip the typical syllabus review and dictating of the classroom rules and ask students how to get a hard-boiled egg into an old-fashioned milk bottle without breaking the egg or breaking the bottle.  The bottle with the egg can be on top of the teacher’s  desk as the students come into the classroom.  Most students will ask about the egg and the bottle and offer ways to solve the problem like pushing it in and using grease.


Eventually, with guided discussion, students might suggest lighting a match and placing it in the bottle with the egg on the top.  When the match burns out, the air in the bottle escapes past the egg and creates a vacuum seal and a pressure differential.  The egg appears to be “sucked” into the bottle which is exactly what the students will say.  This provides a prime opportunity to help students understand that, “Science doesn’t suck!”  The egg was actually pushed and pulled by unbalanced force created by the increase of air pressure outside of the bottle.  Invite students to then figure out how to get the egg out of the bottle – invert the bottle and blow air past the egg creating another pressure change.

Although the egg and bottle demonstration has been around for a many years, it still has tremendous impact on students’ thinking about the science of everyday things.  Today’s science teachers have an arsenal of activities to draw from to liven up their classrooms including the work of Bill Nye the Science Guy®, Beakman from Beakman’s World®, Sid the Science Kid®, Steve Wolf of Science in the Movies®, and even fictitious yet inspiring, Miss Frizzle®. The engaging works of all these science icons foster creativity in science classrooms.

Creating Science Eyes

Ask any elementary age child what their definition of science is and they will typically respond with something like this, “Science is the opposite of social studies.”  This response is far too common and the reason for the response, in my view, is tragic.  Science, like social studies, in most elementary schools is still being taught opposite social studies.  The emphasis on reading and mathematics pushes science and social studies to the end of the day. It is often the case that science is not taught all.  In order to prepare future elementary teachers to teach science, it is absolutely critical to develop ways to inspire teacher candidates to teach science in their classrooms.  One approach to doing this is by inviting  pre-service teachers to create their own pair of, “Science eyes.”   Below is a photograph of teacher candidates wearing their newly created science eyes! These science eyes help the teacher candidates inspire their future elementary students to view the world as scientists—to see things in a different light.

Science eyes (Foster, 1994) represent a physical model and a conceptual metaphor for teacher candidates to think through the lens of science and connect science with other subjects such as mathematics, social studies, and language arts as they plan lessons for their students.  The act of constructing these creative science eyes helps teacher candidates shift their teaching paradigms to center teaching and learning around science.  Many teacher candidates report that they have their students construct science eyes and wear them during their science lessons to encourage, “Thinking like a scientist.”

C and the Box

The story of C and the Box by Frank A. Prince  (1993)   is a parable and reveals that people must break free of old assumptions and limitations if they want to grow and develop. By exploring outside of a familiar box, C, the leading character, becomes a role model for creativity and imagination, and shows that changing the old way of doing things is necessary for progress.  The book is powerful and inspires individuals, particularly teachers, to feel that they can 1) overcome the constraints of conformity and bureaucracy, 2) find new ways to solve problems, 3) discover inner strengths, 4) be creative, and 5) motivate others by example.

I read the book on the last day of classes to inspire my future science teachers to remember that they too have a “spring” in their boxes.  I have each teacher candidate construct a box from paper and give them a small slinky to remind them to forget the worksheets, tests, and daily classroom drudgery. Be different. Go outside. Observe, record and illustrate the moon and other objects in the sky; look for patterns; try to get an egg in a bottle without breaking the egg or breaking the bottle to explore forces; create a pizza garden; take a field trip to the zoo, design investigations, create something!

Figure 2.  Teacher candidates model their Science eyes.



Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2012, July 19). The creativity crisis. Newsweek, 20, 45-50.

Chrysikou, E. (2012, July/August).  Your creative brain at work. Scientific American Mind, 23(3), 24-31.

Foster, A.S. (2016).   Fostering creativity in the science classroom:  Lessons learned from a Brigadier General. In M. Demeterikopoulos & J. Pecore (Eds.) The Interplay of Creativity and Giftedness in Science.  The Netherlands:  Sense Publications.

Foster, A. S. (2003, April). Let the dogs out:  The physics of bobble heads.  Science Scope, 26 (17)16-19.  

Foster, A. S. (1998). Seeing things through science eyes:  A single case study of an exemplary elementary science teacher. Dissertation Abstracts International.  AAT 9903113.

Foster, A. S. (1995, February).  Murder in the science lab? Science Scope, 18(2). 12-15.

Glenzer, M. (2012, July 29).  Creative juices flowing, growing.  Houston Chronicle, p. 1.

Jones, R. A. (2012, March).  What were they thinking?  Instructional strategies that encourage critical thinking.  The Science Teacher, 70(3), 66-70.
Larmer, J. & Mergendoller, J. (2012).  The main course, not dessert:  How are students reaching 21st century goals with 21st century project-based learning?  Project-based Learning 101.  Buck Institute for Education.

Prince, F.A. (1993).  C and the box:  A paradigm parable.  San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass/Pfeiffer, Inc.
Richardson, L. S. (2011, March 25).  The creativity crisis:  Why American schools need design. The Atlantic.  Retrieved July, 25, 2012, from

Robinson, K. [Sir Ken Robinson]. (2007,January 6).  Do schools kill creativity? [].  Retrieved from


Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking are considered the ‘Gold Standard’ in creativity assessments (CQ) that indicates that people who are more creative as children grow up to be more successful than those who are less creative.  The Torrrance tests were developed by E. Paul Torrance in the 1950’s and 1960’s.


Susan Striker’s Anti-Coloring books for the Young at Art can be found at the following website

Droodles was a syndicated cartoon feature created by Roger Price and collected in his 1953 book Droodles. The trademarked name “Droodle” is a nonsense word suggesting “doodle”, “drawing” and “riddle.” Their general form is minimal: a square box containing a few abstract pictorial elements with a caption (or several) giving a humorous explanation of the picture’s subject. For example, a Droodle depicting three concentric shapes — little circle, medium circle, big square — might have the caption “Aerial view of a cowboy in a Port-a-john.” Droodles are (or were) purely a form of entertainment like any other nonsense cartoon and appeared in pretty much the same places (newspapers, paperback collections, bathroom walls) during their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. The commercial success of Price’s collections of Droodles led to the founding of the publishing house Price-Stern-Sloan, and also to the creation of a Droodles-themed game show.

Seeing things through science eyes: A case study of an exemplary elementary teacher by Foster, Andrea Susan, Ph.D., Texas A&M University, 1998, 229 pages; AAT 9903113

Science-eyed elementary teachers exhibit relentless passions for replacing traditional teaching with realistic, integrated, responsible instruction with science at its core. The purpose of this study was to explore an exemplary elementary teacher’s thinking about science and how it serves as a vehicle for the learning that occurs in her primary classroom. Two research questions were investigated in this study. First, what does it mean for an exemplary elementary teacher to view all learning with science eyes? Second, in what ways does the science-oriented elementary teacher use her knowledge of science content, pedagogy, and practical experience to structure her students’ learning and her classroom teaching?

The Science Teachers Association of Texas



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