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STEM learning: Which is more important, creativity or content?

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgWhen it comes to program goals, what is the relationship between inventiveness and engineering content? I am working on strategies to engage youth audiences in engineering education. While searching for effective curricula to facilitate inquiry learning through hands-on activities, I reviewed the Design Squad Invent It, Build It curriculum. It suggests that invention is about "making the world a better place." Struck by this definition, I started to wonder if or how "invention" is different from or related to the engineering process.

Digging a little, I find that engineering is the systematic process of solving problems (using science and math skills). Invention, on the other hand, is the creative act of making something new - the critical step that actually solves problems. The "necessity," that is often cited as the "mother of invention" sparks the engineering process. Likewise, the engineering process feeds creative invention. After mulling it over, I believe that the two are different, but inherently linked.

Leonardo da Vinci said "Learning never exhausts the mind." It is from this notion that we strive to create intentional, ongoing learning opportunities for youth and adults in the Minnesota 4-H Program. I work closely with the Minnesota 4-H Science/STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to create these sustained learning experiences. In this capacity, I focus time and energy on our investment in facilitating inquiry learning through hands-on activities.

youth_outdoor_science.jpgI think in informal education it is critical that we keep inventiveness in our aim. The National Academies of Engineering in K-12 Education stipulate as one of three core principles that education "should promote engineering habits of mind," including systems thinking, creativity, and optimism. It calls on the value of engineering education and technology to improve student motivation and achievement.

As my colleague, Hui-Hui Wang, pointed out in an earlier post, we clearly need to teach STEM content knowledge through our learning opportunities to help youth apply the engineering design process.

However, I am more inclined to emphasize an aim toward inventiveness to motivate youth toward habits of mind that build 21st century learning skills (e.g. critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity). I think that invention provides the real world context to make engineering education relevant, fun for our youth participants in informal programs.

I know that others are thinking about this question. What do you think? Is it more important to facilitate learning for content knowledge or creativity?

-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development

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  1. Can I pick "none of the above" and say it is most important to learn to ask good questions, so that I can identify what the real issue or problem is that needs solving? As you said, necessity is the mother of invention. Having a need, or a problem, provides the motivation to delve into the content knowledge and to learn more about the cause and why things don't work. Without knowledge of how things work, coming up with a solution is very hit or miss -- magic and superstition! Knowing that there is a problem in spite of all that we know provides the impetus for us to experiment, to try new things. Hopefully the need for a solution enables us to tolerate failure and persevere in coming up with innovative theories and models that might work.

    One example I like is the use of plastic water bottles filled with water to create indoor lighting. The problem - families can't afford to use expensive electricity for lighting - created the impetus to use content knowledge (light refraction, growth of algae) with innovative use of disposable (plastic soda bottles) and inexpensive (bleach, tin) items to create a solution.

    So I would say that the problem to be solved is most important, spurring us to learn more about how things work and try innovative solutions. But I'd wager that there would be no engineering without creativity, and engineering would be more like magic (not knowing why something works or just guessing) without content knowledge.

  2. Becky,
    I like your post! Thank you for sharing.
    I think both skills/practices and knowledge (content) are important. Often we see youth took a "try-and-see" approach to experimentation while acting as engineers. You pointed out that engineering is the systematic process of solving problems (using science and math skills). I think not only the skills but mostly science and math knowledge (content) also play an important role to solve problems. I do think these two, skills/practice and knowledge (content) cannot be separated if we want to design a quality program. In real-world, if only do try-and-see, that will cost a lot of money to invention. Engineers need to have a plan to solve a problem. A plan is not coming from try-and-see. A plan is coming from their professional knowledge. If a program design only emphasizes engineering design skills/practices, we are sending out a message to youth that engineering is just about process. If youth want to be a engineer in the future, the program does not help youth aware that to be a engineer, they need to have knowledge for some high lever course work, such as science and math.

  3. Hey Becky,
    I think that creativity is important to support youth engagement in activities in the beginning of each learning experience. If we are able to design activities that push the knowledge and creativity of our participants to their max, we are provided an opportunity to teach content. I believe it is most effective when the content, which is relevant to their experience, builds off of earlier experiences and/or provides solutions to problems they are addressing.
    It is awesome when you are able to use their creativity to solve problems. It is equally awesome to see them receive, understand and use new content to solve problems.

  4. Trudy, thank you for joining the conversation. And yes, you can say "none of the above." I think you hint at some really important aspects related to my question and that is both motivation and context. Another example similar to the one you reference is the "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." (You can see one of his TED talks here:
    Enduring drought and famine necessitated a desire to do something different for the future (context) and he chose to educate around sciences that led to his creation of an electricity-producing windmill (motivation). However, through this process he used creativity to re-invent purpose (apply content knowledge) in the resources he collected. Again, sparked by necessity.
    I am not sure that I can claim one is more important, but I do believe it is critical that we keep inventiveness in our aim. What do others think?

  5. Hi Hui-Hui,
    Thank you for your comments. I believe engineering process content encompasses understanding of content knowledge (e.g. designing roller coasters and exploring forces of motion) but also an idea of a soft goal (e.g. creativity, collaboration). I agree that we can't separate them out, but I am wondering about the relationship of them and whether one may be emphasized more than the other.
    When we think about audience and program cycles, are there situations where it may be beneficial to emphasize one over the other? Or, should there remain a balance of both for the duration of a program or learning experience?
    What do others think?

  6. Mark, thanks for contributing to the conversation. I just read this piece from MAKE over the weekend about how we create innovators:
    In this piece, the author comments that "we are all engineers, inventors, or makers. Unfortunately that innate inventor sometimes gets snuffed out at an educational level." The authors ends the piece by stating, "Given this ability to create whatever they dream, when we ask them to solve real-world problems, we give them the ability to focus not on logistics, but on applying their imaginations. With fun, relatable technology, they can immerse themselves in finding solutions and asking the right questions." This is my hope in the learning opportunities we extend to young people.
    Additional thoughts?

  7. I vote for both, since one does not excel without the other. I work closely with both technical and creative people. It’s often in separate settings and one of the reoccurring things I see is that technical people tend to be good at solving a problem (e.g. a sturdy chair), while the creative people tend to excel at creating an innovative solution (e.g. a cool chair). However, the “sturdy chair “ is often a clunky design and the “cool chair ” won’t last long. The best builders/makers incorporate both good innovation and engineering when solving a problem or designing a product. That’s why it’s important for students to understand and experience both. But since people tend to be stronger in one area or the other, it’s also important to teach students the value of collaboration – " the third leg that makes the stool stand".

  8. Thanks Randy for commenting. You illustrate really important points about individual strengths and the role of collaboration. Thinking about individual strengths, it seems the educator/facilitator could play an important role in placing emphasis on creativity or content depending on the participant. I see this as the facilitator creating a learning environment that is supportive of the participant working outside their comfort zone - if I am creative, more emphasis on content and vice versa. Context seems to be important here as well and thinking about the objectives of the learning. For example, perhaps because of the objectives, the facilitator would emphasize the strengths of the individual allowing the individual to hone/practice strengths. But, I see a need to simultaneously create activities that encourage them out of their comfort zone to explore and amplify new skills and ways of working.
    I completely agree with you on collaboration. Identifying opportunities for youth to work in teams to value and utilize diversity in team is essential, especially as it relates to workforce preparation.
    What do others think?

  9. I'm really enjoying the conversation around this topic!
    It seems to me, in formal education arenas, that creativity is often considered a near polar opposite of problem solving (using math and science). So, I think it is important in our informal education arenas to show how the two are linked (or at least work together).
    In some instances, what might be considered the accepted knowledge can be an impediment to a creative / innovative solution. From that viewpoint, I think it is important to provide learning opportunities that promote content knowledge and creativity equally.


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