STEM to STEAM: The Importance of Arts in Science

Education GeekMom

For this month’s Muse of Nerds, I quickly grabbed onto the STEM to STEAM movement (adding ‘arts’ to the technical.) Creativity is the foundation for advancement in all fields. The arts — writing, music, art, theater and dance — paired with science, technology, engineering and math, foster a relationship between both sides of the brain for maximum human innovation potential. Trying to place STEM at the top of the educational plant stifles growth.

In 1858, Friedrich Kekule published a paper that showed, visually, how atoms bond chemically. He continued to play with the design until in 1865, he put carbon as a six-sided ring (hexagon) with chains and links, which gave rise to organic chemistry. Kekule started out as an architect before switching to the new science of chemistry. The visualization of chemical bonding didn’t come out of experiments in the lab, but a daydream while riding the bus. His brain looked at chemistry with an architect’s eye.

Daniel Tammet holds the European world record for reciting pi from memory. Daniel can “sense” if a number is prime. I think it’s important to mention that Daniel has high-functioning autism because many educators tend to steer children on the Autism spectrum towards STEM fields. However, Daniel uses the arts to “see” numbers. He is a lucid writer with his book, Born on a Blue Day. The way he was able to memorize pi was by creating a visual landscape in his mind. Clearly, art and math are tied for him.

Science News had a special issue on August 14, 2010  devoted to our minds on music. It was a fascinating look at how music influences our growth emotionally and mentally. In it there was a quote from Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, “In terms of brain imaging, studies have shown listening to music lights up, or activates, more of the brain than any other stimulus we know.” That’s just listening! As Daniel Levitin, director of the music perception, cognition and expertise laboratory at McGill University in Montreal explained, “Music processing is distributed throughout the brain…and playing an instrument, in particular, is an ensemble activity. It involves paying attention, thinking ahead, remembering, coordinating movement and interpreting constant feedback to the ears, fingers and, in some cases, lips. It is one of the most complicated tasks that we have.”

How could that kind of thinking be considered extracurricula? That’s the saddest part. STEM in education is not just getting the funding for special programming, but amazing mental tasks like music aren’t even in the BASIC CURRICULUM!

This very morning I was teaching a creative writing class to some junior high students. The stories will be used to later design and program robots (based on challenges the writing students come up with). The writing students have to be creative to make their challenges cohesive with their story lines. The robotic students have to be creative in designing and programming robots. Tying the two endeavors together gives the project more weight.

Have you ever been to a science museum? Did you attend any of the fantastic theater shows? Watching a story unfold is basic human communication. Lecturing is not.

My children were taking a botany course and convinced their teacher to demonstrate their plant family identification ability using interpretive dance. Seriously. Their teacher was cool about it and let them try. They took all the information they knew about these plant families (memorizing), decided on what was the most important and distinguishable traits (critical thinking) and then came up with movements to convey the information in a clear way (innovation.) By using their full body to translate the concepts, more parts of their brain were used. Do you think they will remember the information better than if they wrote it out on a test? Can your fingers remember a song on the piano from when you were a child? Muscle memory is a powerful tool.

My husband teaches genetics and is frustrated at the lack of “creative and independent thought” the students portray. Students walk in the classroom lacking good reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. The scientists getting prizes don’t spit out what they were taught. They dream, they doodle, they hum, they dance their way to success.

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8 thoughts on “STEM to STEAM: The Importance of Arts in Science

  1. While I agree with the idea that arts education is valuable — not just as an adjunct to STEM education, but in its own right — I’d hesitate to try to expand STEM to encompass the arts. Yes, there’s some overlap; fields such as architecture, data visualization, or industrial design have both technical and artistic components. But the STEM fields have an inherent rigor and objectivity that the arts lack. We’re better off trying to provide a well-rounded education to all students and encouraging them to explore using skills from one field in another, rather than trying to shoehorn one entire field (the arts) into another (STEM) where it really doesn’t fit very well.

  2. Hurray for this article! I back you 100% in terms of the concepts. The person (STH) who commented earlier fails to understand that creativity requires using your brain’s interconnections in a certain way. And the way to have a better interconnected brain is being able to make associations that span your right and left brain. Art (especially music, but also any visual art) will those associations to be free-flowing, without the constraints of the “No, that’s not right” that the little dictator in your brain will pronounce before you’ve even finished having an idea.

    1. That’s a good argument for why a well-rounded education should include both artistic and STEM elements. It’s one I agree with. But it’s not a good argument for why you should try to merge artistic education into STEM education.

      Creativity is an important element of both the artistic fields and the STEM fields. But the practice of creation in the artistic fields is substantially different from the practice of creation in the STEM fields, precisely because in the STEM fields you absolutely must have that little dictator in your brain that says “No, that’s not right”, because in STEM you’re dealing with the physical world in a manner that some things are objectively right and some things are objectively wrong. The arts do not have such constraints.

      Again, I said that artistic education is valuable, and that a well-rounded person will have experience in both the arts and in STEM. But because the creative practice in the arts is so different than the creative practice in STEM, trying to merge them into a single educational field is neither practical nor really desirable.

      1. Thank you for this post! I respectfully disagree with STH who commented above. STEM needs to become STEAM. The practice of creation is not different…creativity is a process that requires intuitive thinking–the outcome is specific to the goals of the thinker. The ability to think creatively is a skill that is nurtured through the arts. See my post: Transform Your Mind Through New Eyes:

        I believe the problem with science education is the notion that facts are more important than questions and ideas. Fixed thinking does not allow for innovation or discovery.

      2. I appreciate that you support the Arts for a well-rounded education. The practical issue is that STEM based education is getting more funding than the Arts. The powers with money control what our children spend their time on. Adding the arts as part of all science, tech, engineering and math curricula isn’t just about bringing music into their lives, it will help children learn those subjects more intuitively.

        Learning music for the sake of music is great, but I’d be happy to help children learn computing skills by making Electronic Music.

        That’s my practical side. On the theoretical side of the argument…

        “in STEM you’re dealing with the physical world in a manner that some things are objectively right and some things are objectively wrong. The arts do not have such constraints.”

        I disagree with that statement based on conversations with scientists of different fields who tell me how the “rules” keep changing based on new experiments, research, and discoveries. As a musician who has taken advance theory courses- there are many constraints in how our brain creates and analyzes the sounds we call music. Once you get past the ground level of STEM and the Arts, they are remarkably similar.

        However, thank you for adding to the discussion on an important topic.

  3. Readers interested in this topic who live in the Boston or Chicago areas may want to check out the exhibit, “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge,” (Currently at the Harvard Sackler Museum but moving to Northwestern’s Block Museum in January)

    The exhibit is an excellent collection of 16th century European scientific prints, but it’s particularly appropriate to this topic as the accompanying text focuses on how the artisitc and scientific communities collaborated to push the boundaries of printmaking technologies. It shows how the artists helped the scientists come up with innovative ways to clearly present technical information to broader audiences.

    Details at:

  4. It is stunning to me that anyone denies the deeprooted necessity to the neurological development of a human animal of not only artistic experiences, but even more fundamentally, of artistic learning and expression. I cannot conceive how “art” and “science” came reasonably to be separated. There are clear and present and now physically trackable (in the brain) reasons why some students apply and are admitted to both Juliard and Caltech (and have to make a choice which focus to take more heavily–but not to exclude the other focus!).

    Musicality, visual composition, and dance are not only intuitive exercises, but also provide rhythmical training ( = pattern recognition and logic) and stimulate crosswiring of the brain–literal physical brain-change, literal, physical, growth in neurological flexibility and capacity. How can that not be not only positive but vital to a scientific outlook? Strong and flexible pattern recognition, manipulation, and analysis may be what created the biological success of the human species.

    There is no legitimate excuse for not feeding the mind-body(-spirit(?)) animal we are unless we are literally physically starving (and even then … a parent sings or rocks their children to sleep if they can). Especially crimal is not feeding the developing young animals–unless you *want* the human animal to grow up handicapped (yuck). Forcing high art on kids is obviously stupid unless they happen to love it (lectures on Monet in fourth grade, anyone :P?) … but failing to meet children’s actual developmental needs is not a rational long-term strategy.

  5. I love your post! Great information. I run clubs at the lunch hour for kids that integrate art and science. We learn some of the science behind the materials in our lives and then use those materials to create artwork.

    I look forward to hearing more of your ideas.

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