Creative teaching in STEM

It has long been recognised within Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) that the traditional approach in higher education is not working and student ‘buy-in’ to these important topics is dropping. Traditional methods of teaching have been comfort zones for many academics within the STEM disciplines as they are focused on content as the driver, resulting in a ‘lecture and listen approach’ and something easily ‘testable’ to ascertain learning. There is now a growing impetus to move toward student-centred learning, allowing the development of critical thinking, conceptual understanding, collaborative learning, and applicability to everyday life. One might think that the sciences easily lend themselves to a creative teaching approach, as it fits within the robust rigour of scientific inquiry. The focus of the Pollard et al (2018) article (details below) was ‘how STEM academics understand and go about being creative in their teaching’. A series of interviews was conducted with nine academics engaged in creative teaching in STEM topics.

Creative teaching in STEM education was defined as ‘evidenced through assessment and teaching practices that are surprising, multidisciplinary, risky, focussed on process and product, aligned to learning outcomes and produce knowledge that is new and valuable’. The participants in the study suggested that it was more difficult to design assessment that encompassed this definition; however, it was more applicable to creative teaching practice. But they still felt that they were out there doing it alone with not a lot of support from colleagues or the institution itself. There was a general belief amongst interviewees that universities are not ‘risk-taking environments and tend to the conservative in teaching’, resulting in a reluctance from many academics to change their usual practice. This belief suggests that a more supportive environment that encourages and helps develop creative teaching practices may enable more academics to ‘give it a go’.

The educators interviewed in this article had implemented creative teaching in their topics with positive results. Not only had they enhanced student engagement, but teacher satisfaction had also increased through implementing creative teaching techniques. These techniques included more authentic activities for students to participate in, and a flipped classroom approach that has allowed more empowering face-to-face engagement.

Although there was a recognition that a change in their approach to teaching was necessary, it was still a daunting and challenging process where educators did not always feel supported by their peers or other sections of the university – unless there was evidence that it worked. Also, there was consideration that learning outcomes still needed to be met to allow progression of the student into subsequent topics. By changing things and taking risks, there was a chance that students would not have the prerequisite knowledge to excel in other course topics. This tension between developing new modes of delivery, lack of support or resources, and meeting the required learning outcomes for student progression through their course impacted on the adoption of creative teaching by other STEM academics in their institution.

However, the conclusions from this study suggest that successful strategies to implement creative teaching were ‘determination, openness to the unexpected and curious and confident risk taking’, and providing academic support.

Where can you find support to introduce creative teaching in your topics? You could attend a staff development workshop (eg Learning & teaching, Educational technology). You could also view the range of services and support available from CILT. Are you aware of any STEM academics engaged in creative teaching? You could find out what they have done and see if it gives you ideas for your teaching.

Full paper: Pollard, Vikki, Hains-Wesson, Rachel & Young, Karen 2018, Creative teaching in STEM, Teaching in Higher Education, 23, 2, 178-193.

Contributed by Dr Debbie Charter
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
CILT Quality

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