I have been asked to speak about the role that the arts play in STEM education.
Very simply, art teaches the skills and competencies that students need to in order to be successful in the STEM disciplines. Work in these fields is not really possible without the skills that the arts teach. This is not a new concept, but one that is simply coming to light at a time when our country searches for ways to create innovative thinkers. In The Art and Craft of Science, an article that appeared in Educational Leadership, in February 2013, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein argue that,
“Arts and crafts develop such skills as observation, visual thinking, the ability to recognize and form patterns, and manipulative ability. They develop habits of thought and action that include practicing, persevering, and trial-and-error problem solving. They pose new challenges,.... And they provide novel structures, methods, and analogies that can stimulate scientific innovation.
For all these reasons, finding ways to foster arts education alongside science education—and, even better, finding ways to integrate the two—must become a high priority for any school that wants to produce students capable of creative participation in a science-dominated society like ours.”
First, exposure to the arts teaches observation or deep noticing. There is a difference, as you know, between looking and looking closely. Increasingly, students live in a world where everything is instantaneous and their attention spans are shorter and shorter-perhaps this is true for all of us. When students are asked to draw something, they must look closely in order to accurately observe the lines and shapes of the object they are trying to portray. Students learn to see tiny differences and to record them. Doesn’t this sound like what a scientist does? In architecture, I begin the class by asking students to draw the front elevation of their houses. Although most of them have lived in their house their entire lives, they always struggle with this. How many windows? Where are they? What does the roof look like? How many of you could do this if I asked you to do it now? For homework, students draw the same elevation from observation and then compare the two drawings. Drawing from observation allows them to slow down and really look at their house. The process is repeated when students spend several weeks creating interior perspective drawings of the high school. Years later, students visit and tell me they still know that part of the building better than any other space they have spent time in, because of drawing it.
At Scarsdale High School, I teach a lighter load and have release time to work with other teachers across the disciplines writing curriculum and teaching with them in their classrooms. Because of this, I work with Biology teacher Beth Schoenbrun, who asks her students to adopt a tree for the year and to create a log, recording observations. This journal must include drawings, but not all her students have had art classes or are comfortable drawing. Using the children’s book: Drawing a Tree by Bruno Munari, and simple diagrams of bifurcation, I work with students first in the classroom and then outside as they begin to draw. If they can make the letter Y, they can learn to draw a tree. Their journals begin simply but gain complexity as the year continues, as they come to know their tree and observe its changes. Students then go on to making observational drawings during dissections looking at and labelling specific organs. The drawing requires close observation and deep noticing. I had an AP art history student who emailed me when she was in medical school to boast that she was the best in her class at reading sonograms and MRIs. She knew it was because she had learned observation from looking closely and analyzing paintings in my class.
Second, the arts teach students to envision, to create an image from an idea in their head. Einstein, who went to a secondary school in Switzerland that was based on Johann Pestalozzi’s philosophy of education and encouraged visualization and modelling, was able to visualize complex concepts in his mind. When students learn spatial thinking, they gain the ability to see three-dimensional space in their heads from looking at a two-dimensional drawing. This is a skill that engineers, architects and scientists need, but it also allows students to envision and understand difficult ideas. If students understand how things fit together, and how they pull apart, then they are able to understand how things work. In architecture, students study the high school building and make a map of their movements throughout one full day. They must record two-dimensionally their path through three-dimensional spaces. They argue with me when I correct their drawings, telling me that a hallway turns left instead of right or that the stairs are oriented in a certain way. I send them out with their drawings to correct them in the actual space. From creating perspective drawings and these maps, students practice spatial thinking. They learn, as architects, engineers and scientists must, to see three-dimensional spaces in their minds when looking at a two-dimensional drawing. This ability to “see” or envision, is critically important to the STEM disciplines. In Chemistry, students must understand the order in which electrons fill the different orbitals around an atom. Schoenbrun and I ask students to embody the process, walking their way through the orbits, which helps them understand the potential energy of each orbital and the order in which they would be filled by electrons. In math classrooms, envisioning allows Fibonacci’s sequence to become more than a series of numbers. Students can use it to create the golden rectangle and then see how nature uses it to create growth patterns, linking math to biology. Scientific thinking is almost synonymous with recognizing and forming patterns. Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein conclude that, “ Every hypothesis and theory is the discovery of a pattern within some set of observations. For this reason, artists, choreographers, and musicians, whose works invariably invent and play with patterns, have a great deal to teach scientists (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999).”
Art also teaches habits of mind such as persevering and trial-and-error problem solving. Through grappling with creative problems, students learn that there is not just one answer and become more comfortable with open-ended questions. Stanford University’s Design Thinking codifies the process of creative thinking: discovery and empathy, synthesizing information and defining the problem, ideation or brainstorming, experimenting and testing, and evolution and redesign. I have been using this “roadmap for thinking” with classes this year, both in art and in collaborating with others on curriculum, and have found that it forces students to slow down. Students now are so product and grade driven that they are not interested in being involved in a process, but rather hurry through any project in order to get it done and get the grade. As a result, they become focused on the right answer and cannot seem to persevere when it is not easily obtained. They become frustrated with open-ended questions, because there is no one right answer. Scientists, mathematicians, engineers and artists need to be comfortable with these types of problems and to be resilient, so that when an experiment or design does not yield the expected result, they do not give up, but rather adapt their thinking and try again. Students who make things, whether it is art or tinkering with tools and different types of material, learn to trust the design process. They learn to adapt their own thinking when something unexpected happens, ask new questions and rethink. They learn from failure: it becomes part of the process. This is embodied in the Maker movement, sparked by Dale Dougherty’s Make Magazine, which is transforming innovation in industry, hands-on learning in education and the personal lives of makers of all ages and is at the intersection of technology and the arts. Makerspaces are where people of all ages can collaborate and create. Observing, visualizing and manipulating materials builds creative confidence and helps STEM students and professionals imagine new possibilities.