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STEM careers require the same kind of creative thinking as the arts, says new research

Surprisingly, creativity is general in nature, according to a new study that has big implications for education.

STEM careers require the same kind of creative thinking as the arts, says new research
[Photo: Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress]

The visionary musician, who composes an orchestral symphony and struggles to originate a melody for the scherzo, must use creativity to solve the problem.

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And the clever engineer, who designs an electricity circuit for a tower and finds that it collides with the water pipes, must also use creativity to solve the problem.

While one might think the type of creativity used in solving these problems differs—with the musician versed in chords and arpeggios, and the engineer in voltages and linear algebra—one would be wrong, says a new study from the University of South Australia. According to study authors, the creativity toolkits used in the arts and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are actually very similar.

Fundamentally, both rely on being open to new ideas, employing divergent thinking, and maintaining a sense of flexibility, they say.

“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,” said lead author and professor David Cropley. “As it turns out, creativity is general in nature—it is essentially a multifaceted competency that involves similar attitudes, disposition, skills, and knowledge, all transferable from one situation to another.”

For the three-part study, researchers surveyed 2,277 undergraduate and graduate students in Germany aged 17 to 37. Of those, 2,147 were enrolled in STEM classes and 130 were enrolled in arts classes. The first part tested the students’ creative self-efficacy, or confidence in their own creative abilities, as they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I am good at coming up with new ideas” and “I have a good imagination.” The second part tested their divergent thinking, as they were asked to generate as many ideas as possible for a given problem such as “how to improve the use of public trains.” In the final part, they were asked to score given solutions to problems on their originality, feasibility, effectiveness, and overall creativity.

Across the board, researchers identified minimal differences between the art students and the STEM students.

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This has great implications for education, Cropley said, as teachers “can now confidently embrace and integrate heightened levels of creativity across their curriculum for the benefit of all students—whether STEM or arts based.”

And it’s a significant discovery for humanity as a whole, as the importance of creativity continues to grow in our increasingly automated world. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum identified creativity to be as crucial as artificial intelligence in performing the jobs of the future.

“To prepare the next generation for the future, we need to understand the gaps in the market—the human skills that computers, artificial intelligence, and automation cannot achieve,” said Cropley. “This is where creativity fits.”

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