Creativity in the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) arena functions in the same way to how it works in the arts, according to new research from the University of South Australia (UniSA).

In a study published in the December 2020 issue of psychology journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, the university collected data related to self-expression, thoughts and perceptions from 2277 German undergraduate students aged between 17 and 37 – with a split of 2147 enrolled on STEM courses and 130 taking arts subjects.

The aim of the exercise was to explore contrasts between the groups’ approaches to creativity – and a major clue to the outcome can be seen in the study’s title: Differences in Creativity Across Art and STEM Students: We are More Alike Than Unalike. (Thinking Skills and Creativity, Vol 38, December 2020)

In a statement, UniSA innovation specialist and study co-author Professor David Cropley said: “The big change for education systems would be moving away from a rather fragmented and haphazard approach to teaching creativity, to a much more holistic and integrated approach.

“To prepare the next generation for the future, we need to understand the gaps in the market – the human skills that computers, artificial intelligence (AI) and automation cannot achieve – and this is where creativity fits.” (UniSA via EurekAlert!, 12 October 2020)

Cropley noted: “Until this research, we didn’t know whether creativity in STEM was the same as creativity in anything, or if there was something unique about creativity in STEM. If creativity was different in STEM – that is, if it involved special attitudes or abilities – then we’d need to teach STEM students differently to develop their creativity.”

However, he added: “As it turns out, creativity is general in nature – it is essentially a multi-faceted competency that involves similar attitudes, disposition, skills and knowledge, all transferrable from one situation to another. So, whether you’re in art, maths or engineering, you’ll share an openness to new ideas, divergent thinking and a sense of flexibility.”

UniSA also cited recent research from the World Economic Forum that identified creativity as every bit as vital to building the workforce of tomorrow as AI.

What should leaders take away from UniSA’s study in terms of how to galvanise creative potential among their staff and within their organisations?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I’m not surprised by these findings – by its very nature, creativity involves thinking differently and not being constrained. So, if you assume that there’s one type of creativity for STEM and another for the arts, that in itself is a rather constrained outlook, evoking the very sorts of borders that creativity strives to overcome. It’s bound to be the case that creativity is a much more general, rather than domain-specific, activity.”

She notes: “To me, these findings should remind us of the creative potential inherent in everyone in organisations. In research of our own that we will publish on 28 October, we at the Institute have explored the lived experiences and public perceptions of neurodivergent individuals. Author Steve Silberman, whose work we have cited, is just one of many experts in this field who argues that neurodivergents can think in ways that neurotypical people can’t. As well as being able to spot problems that may be invisible to neurotypicals, they can suggest outside-the-box solutions for resolving them.

“In that sense, individuals whose neurodivergence manifests itself in such conditions as autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia and dyscalculia represent a rich seam of untapped talent – particularly if leaders are looking for new and innovative solutions to old or hidden problems. But given that UniSA’s research shows that creativity is a generalised human trait, it’s clear that neurotypicals have a significant stake here, too.”

Cooper explains: “We know that children who are left to play, draw or paint for hours at a time will just keep on coming up with ideas. So, it’s up to leaders to harness techniques that will unleash that natural, creative energy inherent in all their staff. One very simple and accessible method that leaders can use is the Kanban board. Typically utilised for managing workflow, a Kanban board can be repurposed as a constantly evolving, living register of staff ideas. Employees can put ideas up on the board at any time, and no idea is taken down until it’s been actioned. Some may be on the board longer than others, but that’s okay – every idea remains on display until its time has come.”

She adds: “What’s happening there is that no one’s ideas are being dismissed. Everyone can see not only that they are being listened to, but that each of their ideas has a place. There are many techniques stemming from agile theory that seek to encourage creativity, but the openness of the Kanban board is particularly compelling. Each idea becomes an invitation, urging the organisation to take a bold, new step.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on creativity.

Source refs:

Thinking Skills and Creativity, Vol 38, December 2020

UniSA via EurekAlert!, 12 October 2020