Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why science is like play

By Beau Lotto, Special to CNN
updated 10:00 AM EST, Sun November 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Beau Lotto: Uncertainty is dangerous in a predatory world, but essential for innovation
  • He says science gives people the means to be creative in devising theories, experiments
  • Lotto recruited students to take part in a science project about the visual behavior of bumblebees
  • Students crafted experiments and wrote their findings in a paper that was published

Editor's note: Beau Lotto is founder of Lottolab, a hybrid art studio and science lab based in London. He spoke at TEDGlobal 2012 in Edinburgh, U.K., in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas Worth Spreading," which it makes available on its web site.

(CNN) -- Anything creative begins with a question.

The problem is that questions take us into uncertainty, which is a very dangerous place to be. If there were a predator next to you and your brain wasn't absolutely sure what to do, then it'd probably be too late.

The need to translate ambiguous sensory information into meaningful behavior has been the fundamental drive of brain evolution, without which survival in a complex world would not have been possible. And yet a deep irony is that the best questions -- i.e., the ones that challenge our deepest sense of what is true -- create the most uncertainty.

So how is it possible to be creative? Fortunately nature gave us a solution, which in the context of human culture we call science. Not science reduced to the Methods section of a paper, but science as a "way of being," where not only is uncertainty celebrated, but so too are possibility, diversity and openness. In other words ... play.

Watch Beau Lotto's TED Talk

What do science and play have in common?

Armed with this idea that science is play (and thus experiments are games) I asked whether we could not simply teach children about science, but actually enable them to become the scientist and in this way offer children an essential tool for contending with the uncertainty that is inherent to life. The answer to this question was the Blackawton Bees Project.

Through the course of several "workshops" spread over three months, Dave Strudwick and I went on a journey with 25 children aged 8 to 10 years old. The journey was broken down into several distinct stages, but what happened within each stage was an emergent consequence of the interactions with and between the children.

The first step was "Wonder," since without it there's no motivation to ask a question. The second was to ask "Why?" the third "What If?" and the fourth -- "Who Cares?"

In other words, the focus was not on coming up with answers to questions set by a teacher (in which the answers are already known), but on asking questions -- novel questions -- that were of interest to the children. In this instance, those questions came in the context of bumblebee visual behavior.

The children came up with the idea of seeing if bumblebees could learn to recognize different spatial configurations of color, which is important for bees in deciding which flowers to go to for foraging and was a relatively unknown area of science.

TED.com: E.O. Wilson's advice to young scientists

It should be noted that we did not receive funding for this project largely because it was thought that children "... could not do it," and because the funders required the process to be fully prescribed, which is like asking an artist to describe what the painting is going to look like before he/she paints it, or to describe the results of an experiment before even the question itself has been devised.

Amy O\'Toole, a student who took part in the Blackawton Bees science project, speaks at TED Global 2012.
Amy O'Toole, a student who took part in the Blackawton Bees science project, speaks at TED Global 2012.

The result was tremendous. Not only did the children devise meaningful questions, but also crafted games (i.e. experiments) to address them. They made the subsequent observations and working together created a "story" about the process and their observations. It was the latter that was submitted for publication.

TED.com: Yep, I built a nuclear fusion reactor

Naturally, while the editors of nearly every biologically-based science journal -- including the most prestigious journals -- were interested in the story and process, none were willing to review the manuscript because it wasn't written in the typical style of a science paper. This, however, creates a problem. If one has observations that are both novel and relevant obtained from a robust scientific method, are the findings made less important by mode of communication? (The paper was eventually published by the journal Biology Letters; read it here.)

The Blackawton Bees Project demonstrates that by participating in real science, we can all become observers of the intimately private process by which our brains make sense of the world. By becoming actively involved in the process of making sense, the children not only became the scientist -- and thus learned about science from within -- but the process fostered in each child a sense of choice, creativity and compassion.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



TED.com: Award-winning teenage science in action

These latter motivations are, I'd suggest, the true reasons for changing the way science is currently taught in our schools -- to "See Myself See:" to become actively aware of how our environment, perception and imagination shape who we are as an individual and as a society. This arguably unique human capacity is the principal act of consciousness that has the power to transform our view of the world and of ourselves, since it creates the opportunity to find and create new relationships that will shape future behavior.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Beau Lotto.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT