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NSF Project Looks for Ways to Gauge 'Spark' of Creativity

Most teachers have seen that spark of innovation ignite among students planning a project or creating their own game on the playground, but as of yet there's no way to identify the patterns of how that creativity happens or how to encourage it. A new project developed at the University of Cincinnati is searching for ways to change that.

The National Science Foundation has given just under $1 million to the project as one of the agency's first Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) grants.

Researchers in social psychology, cognitive science, computer science, engineering, and network theory, led by Ali A. Minai, an electronic and computing systems professor at the University of Cincinnati, will analyze online networks which have created "collective wisdom—many interacting individuals [who] produce better ideas, insights, solutions and decisions than a single individual can produce."

"Though education is not a primary focus of the work, we hope and expect that it will make a significant contribution in that area," Minai told me. In addition to developing new metrics to assess creativity, Minai said he hopes the project will identify "social interaction patterns that allow individuals in social networks to be more creative."

"However, it is important to keep in mind that the research will be data-driven and may lead in unexpected directions," he said.

The ability to measure creativity and nurture it has proved both elusive and increasingly vital to educators and policymakers alike. Some education watchers consider testing to be anathema to creativity, while others argue encouraging students to be creative and innovative boosts their engagement and problem-solving skills, which in turn will improve their understanding of the material and test performance.

"Most importantly, this project will clarify how the connectivity of individuals in a network acts to boost or suppress innovation," the researchers say in their abstract of the project. "Recent studies suggest that the rate of innovation must increase exponentially to sustain a growing and urbanizing global society."

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