Science and engineering are inherently creative and explorative fields. For every question that a scientist answers, they find themselves with thousands more, ushering in further innovations and discoveries. For every problem an engineer solves, there are many more opportunities to amend and optimize the solution. These fields encourage participants to think originally in order to expand the database of worldly knowledge.
However, I don’t think most people around me feel this way. To many, science can seem cold and sterile while engineering is just the path to a high-paying tech job. The very idea of “whole-brain engineering” rests on the fact that science and engineering are traditionally considered to require an analytical as opposed to a creative mindset. Recently, I mentioned to friends that I see science as one of the most creative fields, and I was asked for further explanation accompanied by a skeptical glance.
In order to change this unflattering image of science, I believe STEM should be taught in a manner that highlights its curious and imaginative qualities. I’ve sat in many lectures that feel more like history lessons explaining the abstract thoughts of men who have been dead for hundreds of years with no concept of how their innovations still impact our world. No one wants to have equations and derivations read out to them if they aren’t being told how this math can be applied to understand physical observations.
I have found that the most effective classes that teach science as both applicable and inventive have been those that either let students focus on completing individual research or those that constantly connect lecture material with demonstrations or advancements in the field. In my experience, more and more courses are doing just that.
During high school, I was part of a science research class that completely altered my view of science, evolving it away from the static and stoic perception I had acquired from traditional science classes. This program allowed me to perform an experiment or complete an engineering project of my choosing to independently further my knowledge of a subject. When searching for a project my junior year, I stumbled upon the field of materials science, conducted an original experiment that I loved and haven’t looked back since. I honestly am not sure if I would be studying engineering now if I hadn’t been exposed to such an explorative environment where I was encouraged to pursue my interests.
Some of the courses I’ve taken at Northwestern have also promoted this type of learning. During the second quarter of general chemistry, half of our lab sessions were used to conduct an experiment that our lab groups selected and developed. My group analyzed a method of removing chromium from water — a topic of interest — as dangerous states of chromium can be found in drinking water all over the country, including in Lake Michigan. We not only learned valuable lab techniques that aided us with other assignments throughout the quarter but also gained a deeper understanding of chemical concepts that we could apply to the lecture portion of the class.
I have also taken classes where my professors showed videos or performed experiments during lectures to reinforce how the atomic and molecular phenomenon we discussed on a microscopic scale could be witnessed in everyday life. These professors also made a conscious effort to point out how the concepts learned could be useful in a variety of engineering fields which made the class much more engaging and reminded us why we familiarize ourselves with all the equations, graphs and models.
By shifting our focus to this type of learning, science classes will not only be more interesting but be more accessible to the students in them. Taking out some of this abstraction shows how explorative and innovative this field is while simultaneously helping conceptualize the equations and material taught in a lecture setting. With these approaches, students can have a higher understanding of the material and of the potential that science and engineering have to change the world.
Simona Fine is a McCormick Sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.