Why creative skills are critical for the next generation of scientists and engineers

Last month, Adobe’s Digital Literacy Café Webinar on the role creativity plays in STEM education today featured Dr. Stephen Moysey and Hillary Andales.

Group of people on devices at a table.

By Sebastian Distefano

Posted on 04-21-2021

Last month, Adobe’s Digital Literacy Café Webinar on the role creativity plays in STEM education today, featured Dr. Stephen Moysey, professor of Geological Sciences at East Carolina University (ECU), and Hillary Andales, a sophomore at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

During their hour-long discussion with Todd Taylor, Adobe’s pedagogical evangelist, Eliason distinguished professor of English, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Moysey and Andales discussed why the ability to communicate scientific ideas and findings in creative ways is essential. Harnessing creative skills helps:

Key highlights from the discussion are below. For more information, please tune into the on-demand Digital Literacy Café webinar here.

Using storytelling to break down scientific principles

Our guest speakers kicked off the Digital Literacy Café discussion with specific examples of how they have applied important creative skills, such as collaboration and communication, to their careers. Both Andales and Moysey explained how bringing creativity and imagination to the rigid method of a scientific process can make science easier to understand by providing greater context on complex experiments and theories.

As a physics major with minors in astronomy and philosophy, Andales spoke about how science enables us to make sense of the world and how creative skills can help tell stories that translate discoveries to wider audiences in comprehensive ways. She experienced this firsthand when she created a video submission, featuring visually compelling motion graphics made using Adobe Creative Cloud tools, that analyzed the concept of relativity for an international science competition. Andales won the competition and used the prize winnings to fund her higher education.

For Moysey, leveraging creative skills is critical not only in his role as a professor, but also as an environmental scientist who travels internationally to teach local residents about sustainable water resources. He illustrated the importance of effectively communicating how contaminate problems are more common in marginalized communities and must be addressed.

“When you want people to understand something or to change the way they think about something, just presenting a bunch of data and facts is not necessarily going to achieve that goal,” he said. “Getting stories across and using a human perspective helps people relate and start to think about what the information means to them.”

With specializations in water and geophysics, Moysey also leverages 3D images created by antennas and radar technology to see what’s underground, learn how water is flowing through soil and identify when contaminants are present. He noted how the same types of tools are used to diagnose cancer and allow both doctors and patients to better understand where cancer is located in the human body.

Leveraging creative skills in science isn’t a new concept. In fact, world-renowned scientists have used these skills to develop scientific theories and uncover new innovations for centuries. While creative thinking is a major force in scientific advancement, the ability to communicate ideas effectively is just as critical to the scientific community.

“You can have the best ideas in the world, but if you can’t get them out there in a way that people can understand them and share them with others — whether it’s the general public or your fellow scientist — there’s no value to those ideas,” Moysey said.

The powerful role creative skills play in teaching and learning science

The conversation shifted to the invaluable role that creative skills have played in Moysey’s work, specifically when teaching complex scientific concepts. He explained three key areas where bringing communication into STEM classes can help: assess the learning capabilities of students (e.g., mental models) — empower students to form an identity in the science community — and teach students to effectively present their scientific findings.

“If they need to explain to their boss, clients, fellow scientists or the general public, they need to be able to communicate complex ideas so they can become good communicators and stewards of science moving forward,” Moysey said.

To help students build digital literacy and demonstrate high-demand creative skills, he conducted a roleplaying exercise that prompted ECU students to create social media graphics that illustrated water-access issues in the West Bank. They raised awareness of critical water access challenges, tailoring their messages based on Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Additionally, Moysey evaluated his students on their process, encouraging them to analyze data included and their reasoning, which ultimately helped them to hone communication and creative skills.

Employing creative skills to define your identity as a scientist

The speakers wrapped the discussion by sharing how they have been able to establish their unique identities in STEM.

Andales shared her personal journey as a budding scientist and storyteller. While growing up in the Philippines, she developed an early interest in math and science, which initially seemed divergent from her love for art and design. She taught herself Photoshop and InDesign, which she leveraged to develop a workbook filled with 240 math problems and an infographic about typhoon preparedness. By merging her two passions throughout her academic career, Andres continues to disprove the notion that STEM students can’t also be creative.

Looking ahead to the future, Andales and Moysey agreed that the next generation of scientists need to know how to use their creative skills to effectively communicate their ideas in order to drive impact. For faculty members teaching science, Moysey explained that by helping show how students can harness and hone their creative skills within the classroom, they can be propelled forward as they pursue careers in science.

Science is all about discovery — making it imperative for scientists to become better storytellers when challenging conventional thinking. Adobe tools can unlock new pathways and bring creativity to the surface. For more information on how to integrate digital and creative skills across disciplines and throughout curricula, please visit Adobe’s Digital Literacy resource page.

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