A plastic 35 mm film canister fastened at the front of a makeshift cannon pops loudly and then shoots across a Stanford basketball court, eliciting a whoop of excitement from Steven Block, the S.W. Ascherman Chair of Sciences and professor of applied physics and of biology.

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Kurt Hickman

A Stanford course is designed to teach undergraduates how to use the tools of science to reach a definitive answer, rather than memorizing existing knowledge.

That cannon, along with others of varying designs and success rates, was part of a competition in the class Science as a Creative Process, a course cross-listed between applied physics and biology offered for the first time this fall. The launchers are known as Piezo Poppers, so-named because of the piezoelectric device that ignites the alcohol-based fuel in the poppers (and are also common on gas stoves and grills). After designing the structure of their cannon, and several rounds of optimizing the shape of their canister, angle of launch, and amount of their chosen fuel, the student teams competed to see whose canister could fly the farthest.

Several of the poppers didn’t pop at all, but that’s an experience that the instructors anticipated. “Sometimes progress in science is a process of creative failure,” said Block. This is a crucial lesson that supports the ultimate goal of the class – to teach students how to think like scientists.

“What we’re really trying to convey in this course is not specific information – anyone can access the specific information that’s been learned by scientists over the years – but, rather, the way that you approach a question, using the tools of science, and come to a definitive answer as best you can,” said Tim Stearns, the Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor of Biology and chair of the Biology Department, who co-developed and taught this course with Block.

The class is open to any Stanford student and has no prerequisites, although it’s designed with freshman science majors in mind. It’s part of a trio of new “On Ramp” courses in the Biology Department, designed to “actively engage beginning students with the excitement of modern biology and develop the critical thinking, analysis, reading and communication skills required for the major.” It is also one of the only applied physics courses offered to undergraduates.

Creative science

Block and Stearns wanted to give students “the freedom to think broadly about what science can really do,” said Stearns. Supporting this mission, the three main assignments were open-ended and interdisciplinary, fostering skills in computer coding, engineering, chemistry, physics, statistics and critical thinking. In lectures, after covering the tools and methodologies of science, the instructors offered historic examples of creativity in science and asked the students to brainstorm hypothetical experiments of their own.

Paul Calderon

Student Paul Calderon describes the course as a mixture of creativity and the scientific method. (Image credit: Taylor Kubota)

“We’ll come up with an idea for testing the hypothesis Professor Stearns gives us but then he’ll mention some consequences or that the sample population might not be that responsive and there will be a lot of bias,” said Margot Bellon, a student who took the course in the fall. “I’ve learned that in the process of experimentation there’s a lot that can go wrong. But there’s a lot of reward that comes out of it.”

The second major assignment for this class was called “Measure Something.” For this assignment, students were given a custom construction kit, containing a small Arduino microcontroller, a wiring breadboard, and a set of 20 different Arduino-compatible electronic sensors. These included sensors for sound, light, magnetism, barometric pressure, temperature, heart rate and humidity. With this kit, which the students got to keep, they had to conduct an experiment where they measured something, to answer some question they were interested in. They designed their own experiments, collected their own data and analyzed the results as a scientist might, reporting not only their findings, but also estimating the level of statistical significance.

Inspired by research that showed that faster fidget spinners are more effective for people who use them as focusing devices, Bellon measured the rotation rates of spinners with different numbers of ball bearings. To measure these rates, she put a magnet on one edge of each spinner, balanced that out with putty on the other edges, and wired her Arduino to record whenever the magnet passed by the sensor. She found that the spinners with more bearings spun faster.

Other students created Arduino-based heart rate monitors, weather stations, laser-based tripwires, hot-drink thermometers, dormitory noise meters, sunglass testers, class-commute timers, garden soil moisture detectors and more. Their projects were only limited by their inventiveness and the versatile parts in their kits.

“This course provides the fundamentals but it’s not ‘do this, do that,’” said student Paul Calderon, who set up his Arduino to measure sound levels in his dorm throughout the day. “It’s ‘do this, do that,’ but at the same time think about what you’re doing, and maybe do something completely random. It’s really about mixing creativity and the process of the scientific method.”

For their final project, the students each wrote a mock grant proposal. They had to formulate a well-posed question, design a well-controlled experiment and explain how they would recover from error, analyze and find meaning in their data and communicate their findings. The document also had to include a list of equipment and a budget. Block and Stearns wanted this project to encourage imaginative ideas, unbounded by the realities of actually having to perform the experiment.

Becoming problem solvers

With its reputation for established equations and processes, people don’t always consider that creativity is essential to science. More than anything else, it’s this relationship that Block and Stearns want their students to explore and embrace. Many of the students admitted they didn’t know what to expect of this new class but their quarter of experimentation, failure, success and ingenuity seems to have met its purpose.

“In science, creativity is really important when it comes to finding a problem to solve in the first place, but also in your approach to solving that problem,” said Preston Carlson, who took the class last quarter. “And creativity is important for being able to find more solutions because, quite often, the first one you try is not going to work.”

Most of the members of this class will go into science majors and careers. But Block and Stearns believe that the lessons they are teaching in this course could apply to anyone. Whether in their class or elsewhere, they hope that every undergraduate at Stanford has some opportunity to learn how to think scientifically in the context of problems they care about.

“Science is a tool for firing the imagination. It allows you to go forward with the best knowledge that humankind has produced up to this point, and to proceed in new directions that folks have never gone before,” Block said. “The next generation of leaders in the United States particularly needs to know how to think in logical, scientific ways, because that is going to drive the 21st century.”

Block is also a member of Stanford Bio-X. Stearns is also a member of Stanford Bio-X, the Stanford Cancer Center and Stanford ChEM-H.