Creativity in STEM – a contradiction in terms? Not for Europe’s girls!

“The greatest scientists are always artists as well”

– Albert Einstein

By Sylvie Laffarge

At first glance, the words “science” and “creativity” might not seem like natural companions. Many view the precision, critical thinking, and data-driven methods applied in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) as being at odds with creative instincts. But in fact, the greatest scientific discoveries in history were born out of creative curiosity, and a desire to do things differently.

Unfortunately, creativity is often attributed more to men than women. This also affects our perception of the role women have to play in STEM. As a result, women are still in the minority when it comes to careers in these fields. In Europe, they make up fewer than 40 per cent of all scientific researchers – despite the fact the continent has a centuries-old legacy of creative female scientists and inventors.

Last month marked 150 years since the birth of Marie Skłodowska Curie who, in the space of 66 years, discovered two new chemical elements, coined the term “radioactivity”, and became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, as well as the only person to ever have won a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Curie might be the most well-known female scientist to emerge from Europe, but she wasn’t the first – and she won’t be the last. For centuries, European women have pioneered many ‘firsts’, whether spotting new comets, uncovering the structure of DNAproving that the Earth has two cores, the first ever cross-country automobile journey.

Today, Microsoft is proud to employ modern a whole host of incredible female pioneers, who are nothing if not creative. Women such as Sara-Jane Dunn, scientist and mathematician at Microsoft Research. Her take on the link between science and creativity? “All of science is creative. If you’re being creative, you’re using ideas and imagination to come up with something new. That’s what engineers do when they build bridges and skyscrapers. It’s what biologists do when they build experiments to peer into the inner workings of cells; it’s what computer scientists do when they build applications that are changing the way we live our lives.”

But we also have a responsibility to foster enthusiasm for STEM subjects amongst the next generation of women. Europe’s economy is increasingly fueled by advances in digital technology, meaning there is a growing demand for STEM graduates; in particular computer science graduates. By 2020, Europe will face a potential shortage of 500,000 ICT workers. Yet currently women represent just 30 per cent of Europe’s ICT workforce.

This mismatch demonstrates what Microsoft research uncovered last year: from a lack of female role models or hands-on experience, to a negative perception of the day-to-day reality of being a woman in science, several obstacles hinder today’s young women from considering a career in STEM.

Our previous research uncovered how important creative, practical classroom experiences were in reversing this trend. So we decided to take a closer look at how 11,500 of Europe’s girls and young women feel about the relationship between their own creativity, and their interest in STEM.

Across Europe, a large proportion of our survey respondents considered themselves as very or even extremely creative. And the more creative they felt, the more likely they were to be interested in STEM subjects. This was particularly true of girls aged between 11 and 16 years old; roughly the same ‘crunch period’ when girls are likely to either lose interest in STEM, or stick with it. Targeting this age range with the message that STEM subjects are an area in which they can apply their creativity is therefore vital.

Many girls already realize this. Our research also found the more creative girls consider themselves to be, the more they can imagine a career in a STEM-related field. It seems a little imagination goes a long way when it comes to overcoming stereotypes! And the women who follow up on this vision tend to make waves; professional women working in science, technology and engineering have a higher average-value of self-reported creativity when compared to other industries.

Envisioning a career in STEM is one thing. Making it happen is another. But it’s something that we’re determined to achieve, one step at a time. For instance, we know that focusing on the creative aspects of a career in STEM can boost women’s interest in these subjects. Some tests have found that even just altering a job title, to make it sound like it demands more ingenuity or creativity, can boost the number of female applicants. For many of us, myself included, projects that demand outside-the-box thinking, ‘out there’ ideas, or a chance to try something entirely new makes for a perfect day at work.

STEM researchers apply this kind of creativity everyday – whether they are interpreting lab results, mulling over an equation, or writing a complex piece of code. Conveying the creativity involved in each of these tasks, and broadening ideas of what a ‘creative career’ denotes, is a prerequisite to shifting perceptions about STEM subjects. That’s why, during this year’s Hour of Code and Computer Science Education Week, we’re celebrating the creativity unleashed via coding through a new Minecraft tutorial. After all, Minecraft is the ultimate world of pure imagination, where if you can dream it, you can code it!

Creativity underpins our entire civilization. It powered the invention of the airplane, first imagined by Leonardo da Vinci four hundred years before the Wright Brothers took off. Quick creative thinking allowed engineers to save the lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts from over 300,000 km away. And, the fact that, one hundred years ago, one doctor wondered if giving people a small amount of illness could stop them getting sicker is the reason modern medicine now saves up to 3 million lives a year through immunization.

Creativity is an unlimited resource, which means the possibilities are endless. To make sure the inventions of the future are as exciting as those of the past, and that they draw from the creative potential of men and women alike, the time to act is now. At Microsoft, we’re equipping the next generation of innovators with digital skills to help this happen. But you don’t need a lot to get started. In fact, just an hour will do. After all, necessity might be the mother of invention – but creativity is certainly its catalyst.

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