Divergent thinking is the underpinning of STE[+a]M which is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.  STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) alone do not promote and foster creative solutions in science. 

Psychologist Robert Epstein, PhD, a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego, has conducted research showing that strengthening four core skill sets leads to an increase in novel ideas.  “As strange as it sounds, creativity can become a habit,” says creativity researcher Jonathan Plucker, PhD, a psychology professor at Indiana University. “Making it one helps you become more productive.”

Epstein recommends four key steps for developing novel ideas:

  1. Capture your new ideas. Keep an idea notebook or voice recorder with you, type in new thoughts on your laptop or write ideas down on a napkin.
  2. Seek out challenging tasks. Take on projects that don’t necessarily have a solution—such as trying to figure out how to make your dog fly or how to build a perfect model of the brain. This causes old ideas to compete, which helps generate new ones.
  3. Broaden your knowledge. Take a class outside psychology or read journals in unrelated fields, suggests Epstein. This makes more diverse knowledge available for interconnection, he says, which is the basis for all creative thought. “Ask for permission to sit in on lectures for a class on 12th century architecture and take notes,” he suggests. “You’ll do better in psychology and life if you broaden your knowledge.”
  4. Surround yourself with interesting things and people. Regular dinners with diverse and interesting friends and a work space festooned with out-of-the-ordinary objects will help you develop more original ideas, Epstein says. You can also keep your thoughts lively by taking a trip to an art museum or attending an opera—anything that stimulates new thinking.

A study last year in the Creativity Research Journal (Vol. 20, No. 1), found that working on these four areas enhances creativity. Seventy-four city employees from Orange County, Calif., participated in creativity training seminars consisting of games and exercises developed by Epstein to strengthen their proficiency in these four skill sets. Eight months later, the employees had increased their rate of new idea generation by 55 percent—a feat that led to more than $600,000 in new revenue and a savings of about $3.5 million through innovative cost reductions.

Despite the widely held belief that some people just aren’t endowed with the creativity gene, “There’s not really any evidence that one person is inherently more creative than another,” Epstein says.

Instead, he says, creativity is something that anyone can cultivate.

 – Edward Abeyta, Ph.D., UC San Diego Extension