How scientists think: Fostering creativity in problem solving

Profound discoveries and insights on the frontiers of science do not burst out of thin air but often arise from incremental processes of weaving together analogies, images, and simulations in a constrained fashion. In cutting-edge science, problems are often ill-defined and experimental data are limited.

To develop an understanding of the system under investigation, scientists build real-world models and make predictions with them. The models are tentative at first, but over time they are revised and refined, and can lead the community to novel problem solutions. Models, thus, play a big role in the creative thinking processes of scientists.

Dr. Nancy J. Nersessian has studied the cognitive processes that underlie scientific creativity by observing scientists at work in their laboratories. She says, "Solving problems at the frontiers of science involves complex cognitive processes. In reasoning with models, part of the process occurs in the mind and part in the real-world manipulation of the model.

The problem is not solved by the scientist alone, but by the scientist - model combination. This is a highly creative ." Her research is published in an upcoming issue of Topics in .

Her study of the working methods of scientists helps in understanding how class and instructional laboratory settings can be improved to foster creativity, and how new teaching methods can be developed based on this understanding. These methods will allow students to master model-based reasoning approaches to problem solving and open the field to many more who do not think of themselves as traditional "scientists."

Source: Wiley

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Citation: How scientists think: Fostering creativity in problem solving (2009, September 21) retrieved 16 July 2019 from
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Sep 21, 2009
What actually constitutes a scientist? It's really a very broad term.

Sep 22, 2009
I really don't see how focusing on models could increase creativity. They're an important tool in science, but they're not the main source of ideas. For a problem to be solved, creatively or not, it first has to be thought up, or encountered, then modelled.

Nevertheless, the psychologist who did this 'research' should support it by coming up with a model, shouldn't she?

Sep 22, 2009
Well, an effective scientist is a creative person. Seeing the interconnectedness of things is a creative process, I believe, and a necessary ability to doing science more efficiently. I think that Chaos Theory and the discovery of self-similarity are examples of the results of that creative endeavor.

Sep 22, 2009
So.. in recording and testing of a model, paper or a computer can be involved (as for the model being an abstraction in the mind.. well, it's hard to separate that from simply doing your best to understand). Perhaps this is sort of saying that paper and/or computers help extend our capabilities. It's been known that words on paper are a good crutch for our memory, and that computers can carry out calculations for us. I feel that in a generalized sense, what is being said was already known.. and has also been known as applicable by individuals in this particular instance.. but now it's being pointed out explicitly (with some unusual use of terminology). I suppose it could be useful to some younger people to hear something like this to get them thinking about it in their own way.. though I don't know what particular discipline this belongs in.

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