Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Why science is like play

By Beau Lotto, Special to CNN
November 11, 2012 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT