Arts Education and Why It Matters Every Bit as Much as Science and Engineering

How the arts, along with STEM subjects, make the mind “fertile for future learning.”

Thomas Südhof is an unlikely champion for arts education.

He’s a biochemist, a professor of medicine at Stanford, and last year won the Nobel Prize for his work on vesicle trafficking, which for those of you who, like me, are not prize-winning scientists, means how cells communicate with their environments.

But in a recent interview Südhof said he feels training in the arts can be just as important in preparing kids for scientific or technical careers as training in the sciences, “if not better,” he told Ryan Romine at Stanford. “Because the 
arts train a person in discipline, independent action, thinking, and in the need for attention 
to detail without becoming a prisoner of that detail. I absolutely don’t think there is a need 
for earlier math training—there is only a need for training the mind so it becomes fertile
 for future learning.”

As self-described “Chief of Confusion” John Seeley Brown said recently, “Being great at math is not that critical for science, but being great at imagination and curiosity is critical.” Art and music, he argues, are some of the most important things to teach because of their ability to spur imagination.

We spend a lot of time on this blog touting the importance of STEM learning, the need for technical skills in the future workforce, and, well, bragging about the incredible work going on in the Pittsburgh region to advance student learning in STEM subjects.

But we don’t spend nearly enough time talking about the arts, or why all of our students need an interdisciplinary education to be able to engage in systems thinking. Writing at the Atlantic in post titled “STEM Needs a New Letter,” Jessica Lahey argues that though the attention to STEM education is well warranted, “turning STEM into STEAM will make this effort even more worthwhile.” The new “A,” in case you haven’t figured it out, stands for the arts.

Lahey continues: “As Obama stated in 2011, ‘We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.'”

Perhaps there’s another thing that the arts—and the creative process—can teach us. As any artist knows, ideas don’t just come bounding in on demand like a well-trained dog. Artists learn how to get comfortable with waiting for that elusive “genius” moment to hit while also honing their ability to stay attuned to its possibility.

As Kathleen Costanza wrote here, “Working hard and learning to love the process while receptively preparing for a ‘genius’ is a bit like keeping your eyes peeled [on the sidewalk] for a dime and finding a dollar. It pays to always be looking—and being ready for creativity or luck to hit.”

In Pittsburgh we’ve been working to help kids develop these interdisciplinary skills in STEAM learning since 2009, with leadership from our public schools.

At Elizabeth Forward Middle School’s new Dream Factory, three classrooms that had previously been separated—the art room, the technology education room, and the computer science room—are now working in close collaboration. Students there are programming interactive games, building robots, and deciding whether they want to paint, use 3D printing to create a sculpture, or some combination.

“This is not a gifted program, this is not an afterschool activity” said Todd Keruskin, assistant superintendent of schools. “Every kid is getting this at our school.”

Educators like Sue Mellon have been helping. Her 7th and 8th grade students at Springdale Junior and Senior High/Colfax School in the Allegheny Valley School District are developing a deeper understanding of poetry by playing around with robotics. She’s using hummingbird robotics kits originally designed at at Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab.

“A lot of kids aren’t crazy about poetry,” Mellon said. “But we have to help them engage with it. After spending two weeks analyzing the poem and creating visual imagery and symbolism for their dioramas, they really understand the work and get quite passionate.”

Or the newly expanded STEAM center at Pine-Richland High School in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, which is designed to get educators to collaborate across disciplines.

“STEM alone will not get us there,” John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design wrote in a recent post at Edutopia. “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, those who march straight ahead toward their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers—those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real.”

Published March 05, 2014