Professor promotes creativity in math

Pedro Isao Mori
Staff Writer

Emily Cilli-Turner, assistant professor of mathematics, emphasized the importance of creativity in the math field, and she shared information on her project to improve creativity in calculus classes in a lecture titled “Calculus Students’ Perceptions of Creativity in Mathematics” at noon Tuesday in the Quay Davis Board Room.

“Creativity in mathematics, or mathematical creativity, is the process of offering new solutions or new insights,” Cilli-Turner said. “With respect to their (students) mathematical backgrounds and what they’ve seen before.” 

Cilli-Turner offered opportunities to be creative in math. It is an in-demand skill needed to confront problems that we do not yet know exist, she said.

When detailing why her research team decided to focus on creativity, Cilli-Turner said that it is because they believe creativity is an ever-developing process and it is not the solution, but rather a method to come up with the solution to a problem. 

To implement this, her team reached out to several calculus professors across the United States and provided them with two problems while having them create four problems. The goal of this was to create problems that either offered multiple ways to solve them or multiple solutions, so that students would be allowed to get creative when solving problems.

This then went through a check they called CPR, or Creativity in Progress Reflection, in which they reflected upon the tasks created by professors and figured out how they could improve these problems to get students to be more creative. 

To further improve this they also conducted surveys and interviews with students. 

“We asked basic questions like ‘what does creativity in math mean for you?’” Cilli-Turner said. “We wanted to see what students had in mind.”

One of the common stereotypes held by students was that creativity in math was limited to geniuses, which in turn was frequently associated with coming up with original ideas to solve problems. 

Based on all of the data extracted from the experiments, six main themes were drawn from the observation in classes. The themes in which creativity was expressed were: actions and attitudes, application, different ways to solve problems, original solutions to problems, going against an outside authority like a professor or textbook and understanding the material.

Understanding the material offered two opposing viewpoints by students. One claimed that understanding the material provided them with wiggle room to come up with other solutions. Others argued that because they did not understand the material they were forced to get creative and come up with solutions for other problems. 

The talk then moved onto a Q&A.

“Were there any differences in creativity levels between genders or races?” asked Yousef Daneshbod, associate professor of mathematics.

Cilli-Turner said that the data and research conducted did not analyze a difference in gender or race because its objective was to see how they could promote classes to become more creative and not analyze each individual’s creativity. 

“Was there a theme that you saw pop up most commonly?” asked Izak Arias, a sophomore history major.

Cilli-Turner replied that the most commonly seen theme amongst students was the idea of originality. She also expanded to point out that the least common themes were going against outside authority and application.

“Is there a difference between pre-COVID and now?” asked Seta Whitby, professor of computer science. 

Cilli-Turner stated that the first sample of data was collected before the pandemic. However, the second sample of data taken immediately after the pandemic started ended up becoming a support circle for professors. The real difference will be seen once the third sample of data taken in Spring of 2021 is fully analyzed, she said. 

Pedro Isao Mori can be reached at

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Pedro Isao Mori, a freshman journalism major and business management minor, is a staff writer for the Campus Times.


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