Student perspective: Even STEM students need a creative outlet

Photo of Gloria, the author of the post, holding paper and paintbrushesby Gloria Bosi, Bristol Futures Advocate

Hello everyone, my name is Gloria, and I am a 2nd year mechanical engineering student. After picking up painting as my lockdown hobby, I noticed a significant improvement in my ability to focus on my coursework. This inspired me to write this blog post.

As STEM students, we are often taught the most pragmatic approaches to problem-solving. The ones which, like mathematics, involve standard procedures or logical successions of operations. Hence, the greatest mistake we can make is to get stuck in a cycle of mindlessly applying physical laws or equations, without appreciating their significance or exercising our creativity in any way. This would only teach us to approach problems in a machinelike manner, and we already have computers for that. A creative mind is a flexible one, which can think for itself and overcome obstacles more effectively. For these reasons, I will try to persuade you to invest some time in an artistic outlet, if you are not doing so already. Here I summarize what, in my opinion, are the key advantages:

Painting in a sketchbook showing the rough outlines of buildings and palm tree against a sunset background

1. Improved mental well-being.
As you may already know, arts and crafts are often described as natural anti-depressants, because they cause the brain to release dopamine, the chemical of happiness. More specifically, creative activities like drawing and painting can increase levels of cortisol, which is the hormone that the body releases in response to stress. In other words, engaging in creative activities can
improve our mental well-being, making us feel more relaxed and content. This can help you let go of that stress from your most recent assignment!

2. Developing employability skills
If you are not yet convinced, making space for art can help us develop highly employable skills. For example, the process of crafting something with our own hands can improve our self-efficacy, which is our belief in our ability to succeed in a certain situation. Psychologists claim that a strong sense of self-efficacy improves our resilience and shapes the way we overcome challenges. These are crucial skills for the workplace, and to survive the pandemic.

3. Improved focus (flow)
As you probably know, our nervous system can only process a limited amount of information at a time, which is why some people find it particularly difficult to multi-task. When someone starts
creating, and focusing solely on their creation, they forget themselves and their surroundings for a while. Their attention is at full capacity, and their brain is stimulated at just the right level. This
phenomenon is known as flow. With enough practice, one can learn to use creative activities to elicit flow, and then channel it towards their other academic responsibilities. This can help you
get motivated to start the assignment that you have been procrastinating on! All it takes is a bit of time for habit formation.

We all need balance. I believe that an artistic outlet or hobby can help you find the right balance to be able to focus, feel, and perform better.

If you are not sure where to start, here is a list of things you can try, even just occasionally:

  • Drawing or painting – this is what I do. I used to be terrible at it, but improvement is almost unavoidable with enough practice. Check out the pictures of my paintings embedded in the post. I will let you guess which one was my first one, and which was my last.
  • Ceramics – perhaps requires a few more supplies.
  • Blackout poetry – very simple to do if you’ve got lots of old books. I highly suggest you
    google it if you are not familiar.
  • Journaling – easy to do on a regular basis.
  • Creative writing – this one is a bit more involved, and probably requires more time.
  • Knitting – you might already have the supplies in your house without even knowing.
  • Cooking and baking – this one requires talent that I do not have.
  • Gardening – ever tried growing potato sprouts?

Thank you for reading, and let us know what creative activity you will be trying in the comments!


Student perspective: How to generate creative and innovative ideas in group work

by Beth Robinson, Bristol Futures AdvocatePhoto of Beth, author of the blog

For many people, challenging their assumptions about what it means to be creative can be difficultespecially for those who already define themselves as being either distinctly creative or decidedly not creative.

It can be easy to define yourself and your own level of success, but working creatively in a group is, in my experience, completely different. I’ve learned that it‘s so much more than ‘what the best and worst ideas are’, and ‘brainstorming creative ideas.’ Today I’d like to share some tips and links which I hope you might find useful when trying to generate new ideas and projects in a team. 

Key things I’ve learned  

1) ‘No ideas should be left behind’. Irrespective of how good, bad or even ridiculous you think an idea is, keep it written down. It may have had a detailed thought process behind it which wasn’t expressed more clearly, and/or could provide some inspiration later.

2) ‘There are no such thing as bad ideas, only opportunities for growth’. If you think someone has suggested a bad idea, consider it an opportunity for further innovation. Instead of saying ‘no’, say ‘yes – AND *suggest a way to further the idea*’

3) Have fun! In using some of these techniques, groups I work with have written some peculiar sounding words or suggestions to begin – often completely different from the brief. But these initial ideas are springboards and prompts, and don’t have to be perfect before you say them out loud

Some techniques 

These techniques are designed to help with idea generation and to boost creativity, and further information on them can be found by clicking on the links:

  • ‘Random Pictures’ – starting with a random picture, writing down random words associated with it, and then working on relating these to the subject matter (Random Images Technique).

  • ‘Out-and-out-reversal – creating a statement which is the opposite of what you want to achieve and working out how to solve the problem to then apply it to the initial brief – this is my personal favourite! (Reversal)

  • ‘Bringing in time’ – when you start to build ideas, ask ‘how would I go about this if I had only one day to execute it? Or one month? A year, or century? This can be helpful in working out anything related to logistics in a project. 

There then, of course, needs to be a slightly more ‘down to earth’ selection, refinement, and structuring process of developing the idea fully. One way to approach this is to build on any ideas you’ve generated and then make them better by creating timelines, asking questions, and using the SWOT technique (SWOTto critically analyse concepts.

I hope that some of these tips will help you as they’ve helped me in finding it easier to innovate in a group setting. Of course, different things work for different people, so leave any tips, problems, and solutions in the comments section, we’d love to hear from you!