Investigating the Impact of Non-Routine Problem Solving on Creativity, Engagement and Intuition of STEM Tertiary Students

Funding year: 
2 years
Auckland University of Technology
Post school sector
Project start date: 
January 2018
Project end date: 
March 2020
Principal investigator(s): 
Assoc. Professor. Sergiy Klymchuk (AUT) and Emeritus Professor Mike Thomas (University of Auckland)
Research team members: 
Associate Professor Jason Stephens, Dr Julia Novak, Dr Tanya Evans, University of Auckland
Research partners: 
Professor Sergei Gulyaev, Dr Jordan Alexander, Dr William Liu, AUT; Dr Andrew Zaliwski, Whitireia New Zealand; Dr Priscilla Murphy, Manukau Institute of Technology


Project description

Attrition among first-year STEM students occurs, not because courses are too difficult, but because they’re “boring”. This project aims to enhance student engagement in STEM courses through integration of solving non-routine problems during instruction. In addition, it investigates the effects of this pedagogy on student engagement and its influence on their intuition and creativity.


The primary aim of the proposed project is the implementation and evaluation of an innovative pedagogical intervention Puzzle-Based Learning (PzBL) in STEM courses. To fulfil this broad aim, this project will ask and answer three important questions, each with its own aim:
Does it work? Specifically, does the integration of non-routine problem-solving in lectures affect participants’ engagement in lectures, as well as their ability to inhibit intuitive thinking and exhibit creative thinking? This question aims to test our hypothesis that participants will demonstrate increased engagement, greater ability to inhibit intuitive thinking and exhibit creative thinking.
Does it work for all participants? In other words, are the observed effects moderated by individual differences such as demographic characteristics or prior ability? Intervention effects are not always equally distributed, and the aim of this question is to test for that possibility. If detected, adjustments to the approach will be undertaken as warranted.
What do students think? This project aims to understand how learners feel about solving non-routine problems and the integration of PzBL in their lectures; the extent to which they found PzBL enjoyable and effective; what they liked most and least; and what they think could be changed to improve it. 

Why is this research important?

The New Zealand government has identified the undersupply of students studying STEM subjects as a priority challenge to delivering its Business Growth Agenda ( In answering the three questions above, and fulfilling their aims, we hope to offer an effective and scalable approach to enhancing student engagement and achievement in STEM courses. We also anticipate that this research will have positive effects on students’ capacity to be creative and successfully confront non-routine problems. These are important workplace employee characteristics and would thus improve the employability of STEM students.

What we plan to do

To realise the aims described above, the proposed study will employ a mixed-method research design; specifically, a sequential design with both quantitative and qualitative research methods. This type of research design unfolds in a series of phases, each with its own set of purposes, data sources, and analyses and so advanced preparation is essential for successful execution of the design. Accordingly, we will spend the first six months of the project finalising procedures and measures (and ethics approvals) needed for the study.  With these in place, implementation of the intervention will proceed in the following six months with three waves of data collection during the semester: 1) Week 1-2 students complete baseline questionnaire; 2) Weeks 2-10 classroom observations and individual interviews; 3) Week 12 students complete post-course questionnaire. Subsequently six months will be spent coding and analysing the data collected, and six months writing up and disseminating the results and their implications.

Our partners

The partners in this project represent a rich array of disciplines and institutions as well as expertise and experience. Specifically, our core project team of ten comprises mathematicians, physicists, computer scientists, and educational psychologists (scholars and practitioners) from four tertiary institutions in New Zealand. Our partnership also includes a group of prominent “critical friends” to act as strategic advisors. These comprise Sir Vaughan Jones, a Distinguished Professor of mathematics at Vanderbilt University and recipient of a Fields Medal; Professor Merrilyn Goos, University of Queensland, Vice-President of the International Commission for Mathematical Instruction and Professor Glenda Anthony, Massey University, Co-Director of the Centre for Research in Mathematics Education and member of the PBRF Education panel.

Contact details

Sergiy Klymchuk
Associate Professor of Mathematics and Director of STEM Tertiary Education Centre (STEM-TEC) SECMS, AUT, Private Bag 92006, Auckland 1142
Phone: 09-921 9999 ext 8431

Six team members (from the left): Dr William Liu, Professor Mike Thomas, Dr Tanya Evans, Associate Professor Sergiy Klymchuk, Priscilla Murphy, Associate Professor Jason Stephens.