Film Shows Why Creativity Is an Essential Tool of Science

Four scientists conduct an experiment on a research vessel
In a new educational film, scientists are using a Rutgers-led experiment to illustrate the creativity involved in real-life scientific investigations. In this scene, Rutgers scientist Kay Bidle (at right) readies a probe to sample water in the Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary. Bidle's colleagues on the research vessel include (from left): Adam Subhas of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Rutgers researchers Kim Thamatrakoln (seated with laptop), and Roland Hagan (piloting).
Video capture, Tools of Science, Tilapia Film

Eighth educational video in Rutgers-led series tracks science in action to illustrate how imagination fuels discovery

Creativity is essential in every step of the scientific process, asserts a team of Rutgers researchers.

To illustrate their point, they have put together a short film showing how biologists, chemists, physicists, mathematicians and engineers converge and brainstorm at every stage of the scientific effort to better understand the carbon cycle in the ocean.

The film, Tools of Science: Creativity, includes scenes shot at the Rutgers Marine Field Station in Tuckerton, N.J., and at sea on oceanographic research vessels.

“We want to show the critical linkage between creativity, the generation of ideas and the scientific process,” said Kay Bidle, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences (SEBS). “They are all integral. If you remove creativity, science doesn’t blossom, and you can’t address or answer questions, especially complex, grand challenge questions about how the world works.”

The educational video is the eighth in the Rutgers-produced Tools of Science series, aimed at middle school, high school and early college students. Bidle uses these videos and accompanying exercises with Rutgers undergraduate students in his Introduction to Oceanography class.

woman examines flask of liquid
Marine scientist Kim Thamatrakoln examines phytoplankton collected during field study. The film shows how scientists develop novel ways to acquire data.
Video capture, Tools of Science, Tilapia Film

The goal is to convey a more realistic view of science and engineering practices, such as how to devise testable questions, how to use data and models and what collaboration means. And it does so from the point of view of practicing scientists conducting real-life lab and field experiments as part of several different National Science Foundation-funded awards. The video on convergence and creativity is part of a Growing Convergence Research project – one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas – on viruses and Earth’s carbon cycle.

Bidle, along with Kim Thamatrakoln, an assistant professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at SEBS, and Janice McDonnell, an associate professor and science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) agent in the Department of 4-H Youth Development at SEBS, have devoted more than a decade to producing the Tools series in close collaboration with documentary filmmakers at the Los Angeles-based Tilapia Film, They are also developing hands-on learning materials to accompany each video and further support learning goals for teachers and students.

As with the other Tools films they have created, they would like to see this video viewed at more schools throughout the nation and the supporting materials integrated into classroom learning. Nearly 1,500 schools already subscribe to the series, McDonnell said, including many in Los Angeles schools.

Teachers who have presented the Tools videos to students praise them for so effectively illustrating the working lives of scientists.

“I have used them in a variety of classes that I teach, from freshman biology up to our selective three-year Research Program, as well as in a summer 'Bridge' program for new high school students,” said Jennifer Smolyn, a biology and research teacher at Princeton High School. “These videos set the foundation for how we talk about asking questions, developing models and analyzing data in the classroom, and help illustrate to students scientific thinking skills that will be useful for their future science classes as well as their everyday lives.”

The notion that the characteristic of creativity spans both arts and sciences is appealing to highly imaginative students who may not understand its applications in the sciences, another teacher said.

“So often in school, students see themselves as interested in the sciences or interested in the arts, but those two areas do not have to be mutually exclusive,” said Nancy FitzGerald, a retired teacher from the Jefferson Township schools, who introduced the videos to many of her students. “This is an important takeaway for students and hopefully it will open the door for students who never thought of their creative talents as being important in the science world.”

If students understand how wide-open science can be for both asking questions and finding answers, they might want to be scientists, the researchers said.

“I think a lot of students unfortunately view science as so formulaic,” said Thamatrakoln. “And they don’t realize that science is much more interesting than that. It does not often yield simple right-or-wrong or yes-or-no answers.”

The 13-minute film depicts a team of scientists from Rutgers interacting with colleagues from Stanford University, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NASA and the University of New Hampshire in the midst of a project. They are seeking to determine how and where the carbon contained within phytoplankton-derived ocean particles constituting a widespread phenomenon known as “marine snow” ends up.

Eleven scientists talk during a Zoom session.
A Zoom meeting of multiple collaborators brainstorming ideas for an experiment led by Kay Bidle illustrates the importance of multi-disciplinary inquiry.
Video capture, Tools of Science, Tilapia Film

To know this, they must develop novel ways to track and characterize these somewhat fragile particles and determine their destination. Whether they float to the surface and are recycled back into the atmosphere or ultimately sink and are trapped at ocean depths directly relates to carbon dioxide levels in the ocean and atmosphere. In designing their experimental approaches to find the answers, they must overcome the challenge posed by the vastness of the ocean and the miniscule nature of the particles they need to track.

The film illustrates this challenge as a series of many integrative steps of inquiry where creativity continually comes into play. To move forward, team members develop hypotheses, invent devices and build them, including a large tank that simulates ocean turbulence and a plastic tube that mimics the physics of the ocean, causing particles to clump together as they do in nature.

“We know from the literature that, by the fifth grade, if kids don't have a good experience in STEM or don't see themselves as a STEM person, they will forever consider themselves as not being a STEM person,” said McDonnell, who has developed teaching materials that can easily be incorporated into science lessons. “We want students to see, through the film and the lessons, how cool science really is.”

The most popular film in the series is the video, Modeling, McDonnell said. The film breaks down into concrete steps the scientific practice of representing natural phenomena with mathematical equations that simulate those processes or events and with which predictions can be made. Students learn that modeling is an essential part of science.

The film was funded by the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and the National Science Foundation.