PKAL Volume IV: What Works, What Matters, What Lasts

Creativity and the Undergraduate STEM Learning Environment

November 27, 2007

Space matters when creativity is a goal for student learning.

Space matters when faculty are shaping STEM programs and pedagogies around a common vision of how 21st century students learn.

Space matters when such programs and pedagogies reflect and respect how 21st century science is practiced.

In the work that preceded development of the TEAL (technology-enabled active learning) spaces at MIT (and pedagogies those spaces would serve), faculty developed a “sense of the community” about student learning (see The MIT Story presented at the 2007 PKAL Planning Facilities Workshop:

  • Every student learns all the time.
    Learning occurs inside and outside of class; every setting is a learning opportunity.
  • Direct experience decisively shapes individual understanding.
    Brain’s activity is in direct proportion to its engagement with stimulating environments.

    Concrete experiences solidify understanding of abstract concepts.
  • Individuals learn by informally establishing and reworking patterns, relationships, and connections.
    Different learning styles must be supported.
  • Change in environment is stimulating.

These convictions about student learning parallel others— less formal— that surface when asking undergraduate STEM faculty, "if a visitor were to come into your classroom/lab— the environment in which your students are learning— what impression would s/he leave with?"

Responses from interviews with NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholars and PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century members, provide intriguing insights about the mental models that influence how today’s STEM faculty leaders shape programs, pedagogies, and spaces in the service of student learning:

    I would like them to leave with the impression that I’m trying to pry into the mental models of my students, in order to forge deep and sincere connections between what they know, what and how they think, and what is really important about science and about learning science. Another impression they might have is that for us a classroom is like a dressing room: where we take clothes/ideas to try them on, examine them, see how they fit, why–or not? They would see that my classroom is more like a lab and less like a museum, where artifacts and ideas are on display without examination; they would sense I understand that learning for many students follows the pattern of structured chaos.

    — Terence Favero– University of Portland (PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century interview)

    What visitors to my classroom see, I think, is great enthusiasm— perhaps even chaos. They will see that the ball is not in my court, that I teach by questioning rather than by talking. This method of stimulating students to think can give a rather chaotic impression, but the students are thinking for themselves, rather than just transcribing what I might be think— or just staring into infinity and not thinking at all.

    — Eric Mazur– Harvard University (NSF Distinguished Teaching Scholar interview)

Their responses also reflect insights from John Gardner about "the playfulness of the man of originality. He will toy with an idea, 'try it on for size,' look at it from a dozen different angles, argue to himself that it is true and then argue that is not. ...it may be that the creative individual could not tolerate such a wild profusion of ideas and experiences if he did not have profound confidence in his capacity to bring some new kind of order out of this chaos."