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Life on Mars and the Imagination of Scientists

Around this time seven years ago I was trying to figure out a topic for my Master’s thesis. It could have been anything at all, so long as it fit under the wide umbrella of science writing. After a few dead ends (sumo wrestling, Amish science) I finally chose to write about the hunt for life on Mars.

My advisor wasn’t keen on the idea, and it was way, way out of my wheelhouse. But I pushed on anyway, for three reasons I can remember. Astrobiology has only been considered a legitimate scientific endeavor since the ’60s. So every study felt fresh and exciting. It’s also inherently multidisciplinary — requiring geologists, climate scientists, astrophysicists, engineers, DNA experts, microbiologists and even philosophers — which meant my story would have lots of different voices. Perhaps most important, all of those voices are focused on one Big Question: Are we alone in the universe?

For the same reasons, astrobiology is perfect for science education, or so argues a new study in the journal Astrobiology. Researchers from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, surveyed high schoolers before and after completing a one-day museum program in which they pretended to be scientists involved in Mars rover missions. The study found that this simulation corrected some of the students’ misperceptions about science and scientists.

These effects, though, were small. Overall the study was quite depressing, especially on one point: Even after completing the program, around two-thirds of the students said they didn’t think that scientists are creative or use their imaginations.

This is a massive problem. And fixing it will take a lot more than flashy rovers and the promise of aliens.

cigcardpix on Flickr

Somebody in the humanities might legitimately ask why I think this is a problem. Some kids like science, some like art, big deal?

Liking science isn’t the issue. Consider a 2007 survey of 15-year-olds from some 25 countries. The students rated how much they agreed with a bunch of statements about science (from 1, Disagree, to 4, Agree). In every country surveyed, the average rating of “School science is interesting” was above the neutral score of 2.5. In the new Australian study, too, the teenagers liked science. They were recruited to the study, in fact, because they had signed up for a one-day museum program.

But kids can’t picture themselves doing science for a living. Another statement in that same 2007 survey was, “I would like to become a scientist.” The average rating from developed countries* was around 2 for boys and a dismal 1.5 for girls. Similarly, a 2010 study followed 33 students in California who in 10th grade said they were “very interested” in a science career. By 12th grade, 45 percent had lost interest.

So how come kids who like science don’t want to become scientists? One big reason, according to many studies, is they don’t think it’s a creative job. In-depth interviews with high school and college students (whether from New York, Europe, or New Zealand) have revealed that the students often believe that science and creativity are incompatible. Seriously.

This couldn’t be farther from the truth, of course, and that’s the lesson the Australian researchers were hoping to get across with the Mars programs. The researchers surveyed 230 teenagers who participated in one of two museum programs: Pathways to Space at the Powerhouse Museum, in Sydney, and Mission to Mars at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre, in Melbourne. Both programs seem super-fun. In Pathways, students plan a rover mission and then execute it in a “Mars Yard” that looks strikingly like the real thing (which you can see in this short video). In Mission to Mars, students role-play being astronauts or mission control engineers, and analyze data picked up by a rover in a simulated martian crater.

NASA's Curiosity rover, self portrait

The students’ responses perfectly illustrate the broader issues in science education that I outlined above. Before the one-day program, only 17 percent of the kids agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Science is boring.” Yet just 15 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I want to become a scientist,” and only about 30 percent agreed or strongly agreed that scientists use their imagination and creativity throughout their investigations. After the day with the rovers, there was a statistically significant increase in the creativity rating, to about 35 percent. But there was no change in the number of kids who wanted to be scientists.

My intention here isn’t to disparage what seems like a wonderful outreach program — if I lived in Australia I’d try to sign up for it myself. It would be crazy to expect a day-long field trip, however awesome, to immediately change a teenager’s career plans or philosophical outlook.

Still, the reason the program is great isn’t because it introduces kids to the exciting, multidisciplinary and provocative field of astrobiology. All fields of science, after all, are similarly wondrous and inspirational.

What we need to focus on instead is why the imagination of scientists doesn’t get through to most of the world’s young minds, even to those who are interested in science.

Are science journalists not describing it? Are science teachers ignoring it? Are scientists themselves too shy or modest or data-centric to spend much time talking about their creative process?

How can we fix this?


Interestingly, ratings from students in developing countries were much higher, around 3.

Images from Ben Heine, cigcardpix, and NASA Goddard

22 thoughts on “Life on Mars and the Imagination of Scientists

  1. Well your advisor was wrong about that thesis topic, wasn’t she.

    On describing the imagination of scientists: trying to do that right now with a profile and the problem is, the scientist is way smarter and more imaginative than I am. And this isn’t the first time I’ve run into that. I.e., it’s hard.

  2. I dunno if you were wrong, Ann. I re-read part of it last night and…oy.

    I think maybe it doesn’t occur to scientists that people don’t think they’re creative, and so maybe they don’t think about emphasizing it. Plus they love all that data data data…

  3. “how come kids who like science don’t want to become scientists?” Experience with hundreds of talented HS grads and college freshmen tells me they have no idea what science careers exist. Like biology? Must be MD. Physics? Engineer. Etc.

  4. While I agree a 1-day experience can be great, and perhaps life-changing for a very small subset of kids, mentorships (ongoing) are a huge missing piece in understanding the balance of datapoint curation and creative design/exploration/general awesomeness of science.

    I was fortunate to attend a university that didn’t happen to have a graduate biology program, so we as biology undergraduates were the research assistants. Freshman year on, I was in the lab and out in the field doing the minutia of data point collecting, but also exposed to random chats about tips and techniques and tactics, the camaraderie of other scientists in the same field, and the workflow that is so tacit no professor would think to formally describe it from a classroom podium.

    Getting kids into the labs and out in the fields, even if just to help gather some instruments, allows them to live the life and hear the anecdotes and see those small moments of ideas/creativity getting around obstacles and strategizing and the serendipity of stumbling upon unforeseen connections. But those moments are small and dispersed and only understood as a profession over time.

    I wish school years were divided into a series of internships with some days of the week dedicated to book learning and other days spent on-site with mentors: 2 weeks in politics, 2 weeks in accounting, 2 weeks in particle physics, 2 weeks in construction, 2 weeks in chemistry… 🙂

  5. I wonder if Stewart Firestein’s approach might be a good way into the problem of making the creativity clear. He’s pushing the idea of focusing on the ignorance, in a positive sense. That is, science is about exploring the unknown, and that’s where the creative work happens — right on the edge of our knowledge.

    So, rather than writing & teaching about the things that we know, maybe focus more on the things that we don’t?

    The book: http://www.amazon.com/Ignorance-How-It-Drives-Science/dp/0199828075/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1356742883&sr=8-1&keywords=ignorance

  6. First off, I want to agree with you, Ms. Hughes, that scientists do indeed need to use creativity in their work, and this fact is often overlooked.

    However, I do think that there is some sort of distinction that needs to be made, in that the creativity of a scientist at work is more of a strictly “thinking outside of the box,” or “observing facts and making connections that are not otherwise obvious” type of creativity as opposed to the creativity required to make a work of fine art. Which is to say that, with very few exceptions, the creative mind of a scientist is not particularly the same creative mind the likes of painter Salvador Dali, lyricist Jay-Z, or author Stephen King, even though these men are all known for making connections that are not otherwise obvious.

    And this distinction, whatever it really means, is important. It would seem that when the high school students are asked about whether scientists are “creative,” it is this latter type of creativity that they have in mind. Such a definition has been narrowed down to a very specific form of creativity that expresses itself in areas such as fine arts and writing. This may be due to the division of class subjects in high school (english composition deals with literary creativity; arts classes deal with other artistic creativity; math usually deals specifically with math, unless the teacher tries to use creative and artistic projects to further interact with students; science classes ditto). Unfortunately, this narrow definition seems to be a common connotation for the word “creativity”.

    A close friend of mine grew up thinking that he wasn’t creative because he can’t draw or paint, and he doesn’t enjoy creative writing. He is now a computer programmer with a computer science degree, and he has told me that he finally sees his own creativity show through in his work when he chooses to write a line of code in a new or unusual or unobvious way, which can save computational time and increase efficiency. This is the essence of creativity, but it’s not what most people think of when asked about creativity, and I believe that the same disparity is at play in the study you referenced.

    On top of this, I agree with what Mr. Schultz said about high school students. Not only do they have a narrow view of what it means to be creative, but most importantly, they don’t have any clue about what kinds of scientific careers exist. As he said, you’re only interested in biology if you’re going into medicine, and if you’re interested in physics, you must be going into engineering. It might be interesting to catch back up with the same students sometime during their sophomore year of college to see if this misconception has changed.

    And furthermore, my personal concern is that the aim of your article here might be to somehow sway some scientists into more actively expressing their creativity. As before, the science-minded are often known for a lack of interest in literary creativity, and tend to focus more on the data data data. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact, I would condone it. It keeps their minds more attuned to the studies that they’re working on, and free from having to care any more than they already do about what people think of their work.

    To indirectly suggest that scientists employ more creative writing in their journal publications or lab write-ups seems a bit silly. If a given scientist wishes to do so, there is nothing wrong with that, but the vast majority of scientists simply don’t have it in them. Not to mention that the people who read those writings typically aren’t the kind of readers who would care.

    Besides, while leaving scientists less fluffy stuff to worry about, it also leaves the door open for journalists and commentators to make the work of scientists seem as interesting as it really can be.

    It takes every kind, and there are clearly those who are more suited to taking the publications of dry data and forming opinion pieces for popular journals and magazines. …or also blogging about it every now and then.

  7. I agree with you, getting kids interested in science is only half the battle. The other half is showing them that science is a creative, widely applicable and satisfying pursuit.

    I think a large part of the problem is that students usually learn about science – but they don’t necessarily DO science. How often do you have a lab where you need to design your own experiment? Or a project where you actively guide your own investigation? Or a problem set where you need to make significant assumptions to take on a real world problem. If students don’t get to participate in science for themselves, they are liable to see it as a boring day-job where you follow a complicated set of instructions (perhaps an extension of their own classroom or lab experiences?)

  8. The biggest problem is that education emphasizes memorization over actualization. High school and University science is focused on the memorization of facts. Most people assume that a job will reflect what we do in our studies, so a job in Writing will be creative, because we get to be creative in writing classes. Compare this to science classes, which are purely about memorization, and it doesn’t surprise me that students feel that science careers are all about memorizing and regurgitating information.

  9. I wonder if there’s a reluctance on the part of some scientists to emphasize the creative component because it may lead to the perception that a project / findings relied more on creativity and less on scientific method. Among the scientist friends I have, most will talk about their most recent accomplishments in terms of findings and not of process. The longer those conversations go on, the more the creativity becomes clear. But the very nature of science may run counter to scientists discussing widely the creative aspect.

  10. I agree getting kids interested in science is important, and astrobiology just might be one of the best ways to accomplish it. This seems like a wonderful outreach project. I hope there would be something like it in my country as well.

    Understanding science is crucial. Wishing to *become* a scientist is a bit more questionable. I don’t know how things are in Australia, but at least here in Finland we don’t really need to get any more kids interested in careers in science, because there simply are not enough jobs even for those that want them as it is.

    I’m currently finishing my Master’s degree in biology. I found a career in science writing, but plenty of my friends have had their dreams crushed: there simply are not nearly as many PhD programs as there are people wanting them, and even less researcher jobs for doctors. They complain someone should have told them earlier that their career plans simply don’t have a future.

  11. These are such great comments!

    Ben– In theory that sounds great. I guess I’m slightly worried about falling off the progressive education ledge…at some point kids have to learn some hard facts, no?

    Dylan — I was not arguing, directly or indirectly, that scientists need to become creative writers, nor that they should focus on “fluffy stuff” (whatever that is). How about this: the next time a scientist talks to a journalist or gives a talk at a high school, they take five minutes to discuss their creative process?

    Aatish — completely agree with you about the DOING part of science. Some of those surveys I quoted in the piece found that kids tend to think that scientists are like their science teachers — ie, super boring. I think more hands-on stuff would go a long way toward fixing that.

    Michelle — agreed. If they only knew that once they talk about the creative process, we’ll be more eager to hear about all that data!

    Maija — Interesting. In the US we definitely have a dearth of scientists, which worries many economists and policy makers. So maybe your smart scientist friends should move here. 🙂

  12. This is definitely worth thinking about. I realize that the perception that scientists were not creative was a big reason that I never considered it as a field. I think that part of it is because most of us never get to where we actually can participate in creative research in science.

  13. The funny part is that we must all be creative in order to move forward. Creativity is problem-solving and the trick is to identify the right problem. We all face barriers every day and need to solve the blockage in order to get past it. Science is highly creative in terms of serving up problems that need to be resolved. And, for humans, the excitement comes from connecting the dots. Also, the thrill is in the pursuit of the solution. My whole career was in solving visual problems, also I did manage to accidentally create a different type of aerodynamics with a paper airplane that I created. The airfoil uses a trapped vortex to generate lift and stability. Today, the KF concept is being used all over the world in radio-controlled aircraft that is scratch-built. So, I say give your mind a problem to solve. Then, let your brain go to work. It is an amazing adventure where sometimes you stop chasing the problem and let the solution reveal itself to you when it is ready. Everyone has the ability to be creative, especially scientists.

  14. Science is boring in high school, because they are learning the boring details without getting into the great implications and discussions about where science is going AND not doing the science itself. Poor teenagers! Now, if we could start them into science at a much earlier age… get some of those details in their heads early on (everything is more interesting when you’re a kid–or was that just me?)…and then by the time they reach high school, you have more time to discuss science (the way science writing does) and perform science (the way scientists do).

    Long story short:start ’em early! Five year olds describing photosynthesis! Out in the forest! While counting differences in grasshopper types!

  15. Excellent article! I don’t think one should under estimate the effect of the media in general on fads in young people…having had children of my own and observed how different career choices are almost fashions! A bit of focussed advertising/pr would easily change the perceptions you describe. Realistically, to regard scientists as a homogeneous group as far as creativity is concerned is actually naive and in the same vein as classifying creativity by race or gender or religion.

  16. That was interesting reading that I lucked upon courtesy a share on G+. Am reproducing my comments here.
    Science as a career choice suffers from a few deficits in perception:
    i) It isn’t sexy jobs. Being a rock star, star sportsperson, TV anchor or investment banker (used to be) or IT nerd is more attractive vs Nobel lauerates. Does anyone remember the winner of this year’s medicine winner? I don’t.
    ii) It isn’t that science isn’t creative. But chasing a career is often a lifetime of work. Not everyone is on the Space Shuttle project. There’s this lady i read about who’s spent over 20 years studying the brain of an earthworm, as a simple brain form, to enable understanding of the human brain. Meanwhile, its thousands of failed “creative” experiments. Compare this with a job selling say, food?
    iii) School science is often taught mechanistically – not relating the equations at hand with real life. By the time you hit high school (in India) the work load is so heavy and boring, you’ve had enough.
    iv) We don’t talk much about “high paying” jobs in science. Next to fame is money. A lot of sincere and good scientists are well paid too.

    I wouldn’t blame children at all. Why make the effort for an anonymous, possibly low-paying job with high failure rates, limited variety (compared to animation) and entails hard work worthy of a Nobel laureate? I’d be mad to say yes. 🙂

    My interests in science (I’m not a science grad) arose nearly 10 years after education, at work. Understanding it related to what I was doing (whatever little I could grasp!).

  17. Sorry to be so late to this, and what I say below is clearly somewhat simplistic, and doesn’t go to the point of how to get young people into science. But surely a major difference here is between the creativity which creates novel physical objects, and that which creates novel ideas. As a research mathematician perhaps on the farthest side of ‘objects versus ideas’, it surprises me how students often are surprised to learn that there are actually new ideas to be found, not just a fixed crusty old subject. I agree that experimental scientists’ creativity often is manifested with new objects, but they come from ideas in the sense I mean. It is also true that Picasso presumably has an idea before he puts brush to canvas, but I think it is quite different from a new idea created by a scientist.

  18. Surely the likes of amazing tv documentaries featuring the brilliant minds of Stephen Hawking or Brian Cox prove that scientists encompess endless creativity? As an undergraduate studying english it is these people who have me thinking of pursuing a different career path. Although I have only mentioned people in the field of astrophysics it is urely applicable to the other areas of science?

  19. Interesting peace, I believe maybe you have overlooked only one posibility. Just an idear…

    The idear of ‘impossible/possible’, ‘uptainable/uptainable’, ‘unreachable/reachable’ that is ‘given’ to children at a very early age.

    I believe that science is very interesting to young children, many of the most watched cartoons involve sience and that only ads to their succes.

    But it are parents, and teachers, or just older kids who have incountered failure, and consider the reasons for their failure flaws, and except them as such, so don’t change them but change their goals…

    Everybody seems to simulate just that. The idear that some things are not for everyone. By wich it is sad that only a few who don’t wish to be influenced but to experience it first hand, they can in fact become anything. ‘Even’ scientists. They who do not, but also have this drive within them wil not state that science does not explore creativity, because it takes a creative mind to become more than the some total of your surrounding. And unfortunatly, when you intervieuw 1000 people, it is possible you should have interviewed a 1001 to have that one free, creative, spirit, who sees no boundries to the universe and so to creativity, before he/she has any knowledge of what is…in it.

    Could add something to your thinking, no?

    All the best,

    P.S I am not English so if there are mistakes in my writing I do apologize .

  20. Virginia, I was an author on the paper you quote, and you are absolutely right on your perspective of a one-day program. I was surprised we detected anything at all in such a short space of time. We did, however, find 26% of those students surveyed were now interested in space-related courses and careers as a result of their Pathways to Space experience (excluding those already interested in space). This was the objective of the program. The small, but significant, result on creativity in science was totally unexpected. We now have new funding that will allow us to extend the program to all schools in Australia with remote access to the Mars Yard rovers and to engage students over a much longer period. Over the next two years we are working with teachers in four high schools to develop a semester-long program that will integrate almost all of the science learning for that semester regardless of the grade the students are in. I expect to see results from this exercise, but we’ll have to wait to see what those results are.

    Dr Carol Oliver, Associate Director
    Australian Centre for Astrobiology, University of New South Wales, Sydney

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