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Creative thinking in science: exploring biodiversity

Practice creative thinking while exploring Earth's biodiversity.

How many species are there?

Earth is teeming with life, from microscopic single-celled organisms to huge, lumbering elephants; from cuddly cats to ferocious great white sharks. All of this variety has a special term which you may have heard before: biodiversity. Put simply, biodiversity describes the variety of life on Earth. Measuring aspects of biodiversity is important for understanding the health of Earth and its ecosystems, and scientists do it all the time.
Let’s imagine that you are an ecologist looking into Earth’s current level of biodiversity. One component of biodiversity is species number. So, the question you are tasked with answering is:
How many species currently exist on Earth?
Wait, wait, wait…that seems like an impossible question to answer! There are so many different kinds of organisms. How can we possibly count them all? Well, we have to start somewhere. Let’s try this: how many species can you list in one minute? Grab a piece of paper, a pencil, and a timer, and give it a try!
A student with a notebook and pencil imagines various organisms, including a shark, a bear, a dragonfly, and a cat.
Ok, so it seems like listing species one by one is not the best approach to answering the question “How many species exist on Earth?”. To answer this question, we’re going to have to think creatively.

What is creative thinking?

When people think of creativity, they often think of art, music, or literature. However, creativity includes ways of thinking that are important in the sciences, too!
For example, creative thinking can include problem solving, coming up with new and useful ideas, taking risks, embracing contradictions, or thinking about natural phenomena in abstract and simplified ways. Scientists also have to communicate their findings, which can take on more traditional forms of creativity, such as visual design.

Let’s use creative thinking to answer the question!

There are potentially many creative ways to approach answering our question. One of these approaches is called a Fermi estimate. A Fermi estimate is a method of breaking one large, complex problem into many smaller, more manageable ones. This method allows a person to estimate a quantity that at first seems difficult or impossible to calculate.
To illustrate how to approach a Fermi estimate, let’s consider a classic Fermi question: how many piano tuners are there in Chicago? To arrive at an answer, we can approach the estimate as a series of steps: first we can estimate the population of Chicago, then the number of households in the population, then the fraction of those households that would have a piano, then how often those pianos would need to be tuned, and so on.
By considering the answers to these smaller questions, we can arrive at an approximate answer for our big picture question, which at first seemed nearly impossible to answer.
Now it’s your turn to use a Fermi estimate to answer the question of how many species exist on Earth. Grab another piece of paper, a calculator, and your creative brain, and start estimating!

What is your estimate?

Nice work! You have come up with an estimate for the number of species on Earth. Next, discuss the following questions with your classmates, friends, or post your answers in the comments section below:
  • How many species did you estimate to be on Earth?
  • How did you arrive at that number?
  • Did any tricky issues come up as you worked out your estimate?
  • What assumptions or limitations did you have to make?
You may not have realized it, but as you were coming up with your estimate, you were thinking creatively! You thought of novel ways to approach a problem, you embraced uncertainty, and you allowed yourself the opportunity to brainstorm freely. Did you know that many professional scientists have used creative thinking to answer the same, or similar, questions about Earth’s biodiversity?

Let’s get visual

Now that you’ve answered a very difficult question, here's a simpler one for you: can you identify at least ten different species in a park or other ecosystem near you?
Draw each species using pencils and paper, a digital illustration tool, or by some other means. Describe the characteristics of each species. Think about what the biodiversity in your area means to you.
One teenager is shown making a collage while another is shown working on a computer.
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