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From STEM to STEAM: Science and Art Go Hand-in-Hand

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Su Song pic - Art meets science in this early star map drawn by Su Song. (public domain)

Su Song pic - Art meets science in this early star map drawn by Su Song. (public domain)

In the wake of the recent recession, we have been consistently apprised of the pressing need to revitalize funding and education in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math. Doing this, we are told, will spur innovation and put our country back on the road to prosperity.

Renewing our focus on STEM is an unobjectionably worthwhile endeavor.  Science and technology are the primary drivers of our world economy, and the United States is in the lead.

But there is a growing group of advocates who believe that STEM is missing a key component – one that is equally deserved of renewed attention, enthusiasm and funding. That component is the Arts. If these advocates have their way, STEM would become STEAM.

Their proposition actually makes a lot of sense, and not just because the new acronym is easy on the ears. Though many see art and science as somewhat at odds, the fact is that they have long existed and developed collaboratively. This synergy was embodied in great thinkers like the legendary Leonardo Da Vinci and the renowned Chinese polymath Su Song. One of Carl Jung’s mythological archetypes was the artist-scientist, which represents builders, inventors, and dreamers. Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician.

Camouflage for soldiers in the United States armed forces was invented by American painter Abbot Thayer. Earl Bakken based his pacemaker on a musical metronome. Japanese origami inspired medical stents and improvements to vehicle airbag technology. Steve Jobs described himself and his colleagues at Apple as artists.

At TED 2002, Mae Jemison, a doctor, dancer, and the first African American woman in space, said, “The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin… or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”

Despite the profound connection between art and science, art programs across the nation are on the chopping block. In June, the U.S. House of Representatives proposed significant funding cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts. Schools nationwide are eschewing art programs to instead focus on teach-to-the-test courses catered to math and reading. The problem here is that a narrow focus on testing reinforces narrow-minded thinking. Young Americans are being educated out of creativity.

Apple Store pic - Apple is a prime example of creativity and artistry spurring innovation. (Photo by Nk via Wikimedia Commons)

Apple Store pic - Apple is a prime example of creativity and artistry spurring innovation. (Photo by Nk via Wikimedia Commons)

By teaching the arts, we can have our cake and eat it, too. In 2008, the DANA Arts and Cognition Consortium, a philanthropic organization that supports brain research, assembled scientists from seven different universities to study whether the arts affect other areas of learning. Several studies from the report correlated training in the arts to improvements in math and reading scores, while others showed that arts boost attention, cognition, working memory, and reading fluency.

Dr. Jerome Kagan, an Emeritus professor at Harvard University and listed in one review as the 22nd most eminent psychologist of the 20th century, says that the arts contribute amazingly well to learning because they regularly combine the three major tools that the mind uses to acquire, store, and communicate knowledge: motor skills, perceptual representation, and language.

“Art and music require the use of both schematic and procedural knowledge and, therefore, amplify a child’s understanding of self and the world,” Kagan said at the John Hopkins Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit in 2009.

With this realization in mind, educators across the nation are experimenting with merging art and science lessons. At the Wolf Trap Institute in Virginia, “teaching artists” are combining physical dance with subjects like math and geometry. In Rhode Island, MIT researcher Jie Qui introduced students to paper-based electronics as part of her master’s thesis exploring the use of technology in expressive art. Both programs excited students about science while concurrently fueling their imaginations. A potent blend of science and imagination sounds like the perfect concoction to get our country back on track.

“My kids didn’t grow up in grade school saying, ‘I want to be a technical sound engineer.’ They grew up saying, ‘I want to be a rock star,’” asserts Stephen Lane, CEO of medical device design company Ximedica and a huge proponent of STEAM.

Celebrated physicist Richard Feynman once said that scientific creativity is imagination in a straitjacket. Perhaps the arts can loosen that restraint, to the benefit of all.

Steven Ross Pomeroy About the Author: Steven Ross Pomeroy is the assistant editor for Real Clear Science, a science news aggregator. He regularly contributes to RCS’ Newton Blog. As a writer, Steven believes that his greatest assets are his insatiable curiosity and his ceaseless love for learning. Follow on Twitter @SteRoPo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 7 Comments

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  1. 1. cutehorsegirl 7:27 pm 08/22/2012

    Mozart did not become a musician because he needed to improve his math scores. Picasso didn’t get into art because he wanted to flex his creativity for that boiler he was going to engineer. How about we have art because IT’S A WORTHWHILE THING FOR HUMANS TO DO. PERIOD.

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  2. 2. designr66 2:00 pm 08/27/2012

    I had the honor of being invited to Washington, DC in June of 2011 for a briefing hosted by John Maeda at RISD and Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, reintroducing federal legislation that would add the “A” to federal STEM funding. This had the backing of the scientific community and has a strong following with arts academia, who are looking for ways to show just how art and design mesh with standard academic classes. Unfortunately, this measure was held up in committee by Republicans who didn’t want to push forward any new legislation that has to do with improving education or arts. This isn’t a partisan opinion, it is a stated fact.

    The non-profit I co-founded this year, the Design-ed coalition, supports the idea of STEAM, because it is essential for educators, politicians and parents to understand that while STEM skills are a necessary part of the future of education, what exactly will students do with these skills once they’ve been acquired? Art and Design tie the STEM skills together, and so they are necessary.

    STEAM isn’t the answer to our education woes, but it is a part of the solution – a very easy one that doesn’t require charter schools or a major revamping of curricula. It just needs support, care and nurturing.

    For more information, you can also check out:

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  3. 3. ReTrOsEr 6:41 pm 09/2/2012

    And Feynman used to go into jazz clubs with his bongos and ask to sit in … which he often did – he was pretty good.

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  4. 4. Innov8 2:21 pm 10/2/2012

    I start by saying that a society without art would be very dull and highly lacking. I also agree that there is a place for arts in schools at all levels. I support the arts in both contribution and participation, and have supported it in my tax dollars at the school level.

    That said, much of this “add the A to STEM” push, seems misplaced and potentially subversive to the real goals and needs of reversing the atrophy of the average American’s attainment, understanding and awareness (nevermind mastery) of Science, Engineering & Math (I leave out Tech, as I view that as potentially a diversion verses the goal and need).
    We don’t have an Art’s gap threatening our society or standard of living.

    The critical gaps in our societies ability to solve the complex problems of clean and sustainable energy, overcoming disease states like cancer and Alzhimers, feeding more people better diets with less land and water, providing clean water, and many more are not related to a glaring gap in the arts. They are much more related to a glaring gap in STEM. Aside from actually making progress about such issues, our society is sorely lacking sufficient mastery and appreciation of the subjects to even be able to engage in a reasoned discussion or debate. This is not a problem similarly shared with the arts.

    We have a BIG problem getting our children, their parents, and our society at large to become and remain sufficiently focused on the work it takes to close that gap. Injecting the Arts into this on an equal level seems to me as unsupportable and unwise.

    Lastly I think the author’s use of the Feynmann “straightjacket” quote sadly missed the point. Feynman was speaking of the absolute need to be both creative and imaginative (a feature absolutely needed by scientists and engineers, and a feature certainly at the heart of the arts), but most importantly was to realize that there is a need and requirement to restrain that within the boundaries of the facts and laws of science and the techniques of math – the areas where we are so lacking.

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  5. 5. ArtSmart Consult 3:51 pm 05/20/2013

    If your definition of “art” is too narrow, I can see why you would believe that The critical gaps in our societies ability to solve the complex problems are not related to a glaring gap in the arts. If our society is lacking sufficient mastery and appreciation of the subjects to even be able to engage in a reasoned discussion or debate, it’s the responsibility of the arts, specifically communication arts and language arts.

    Science, technology, engineering, and math are amoral. Art is the only reason why anyone would be interested in using any of the above to accomplish anything.

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  6. 6. Justin Rocket 8:34 am 05/24/2013

    I work in computer security. Obviously, it is a field where technology, engineering, and math are all critical. Science (i.e. the scientific method) is, also, used pretty substantially. Art is also used pretty substantially. Art is more than Picasso and Mozart. Art is very highly condensed information management. Art is composed of both morphology (what allows a particular concept (or it’s representation) to meet requirements and how to alter that concept (or it’s representation) so that it does meet those requirements) and syntax (rules for how concepts can be combined) in the context of interfacing (i.e. communicating) with multiple external systems (which may include viewers of the art who come from multiple walks of life). Art is the raw guts of innovation.

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  7. 7. Andrew Planet 1:21 pm 08/21/2013

    I was able to reduce the Science and Art relationship to the utmost minimum

    Art is the science of expression.

    I was not able to quote anyone having written that before

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