Ever since the shock of the Soviet Unions’ launch of Sputnik in 1957 there has been a push for more and better science education in the United States. This played itself out quite visibly both in the classroom (an influx of science related materials and science carts) as well as in the general public with the quest (and ultimate success) to land on the Moon. By the end of the 1970,s the United States graduated more engineers (80,000 per year) than any other nation. Then in the 1980’s “A Nation at Risk” was published which claimed the US was falling behind other developing nations in the area of education outcomes. How could this be in a country that only 15 years earlier had put humans on the Moon? Suddenly there was a renewed fear that we would lose our place as the leader in innovation. A decade later the National Science Foundation developed a new set of science education standards and created the acronym STEM, which many know stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Although it took a while for this acronym to catch on (many thought it stood for stem cell research) today it is a common acronym in education. The goal of STEM is to get more students, especially girls, interested and involved in the sciences. This in turn will keep the US on top in the area of scientific research and advancement. This is a noble and hopefully fruitful goal, however there is something missing – the arts.
I believe we need to have STEAM not just STEM. When the arts are missing from our STEM programs we are sorely missing something big – creativity. Students who relate better to the arts are frequently sent to alternative programs or are put on alternative tracks. The students who are better in science do better on tests and are sent into advanced classes. This system invariably separates the arts curriculum from the science and math curriculum and brings us back to the old discussion of function vs. form. Unfortunately when it comes to funding and program initiatives in education, function continues to win and form gets left behind. This can readily be seen in today’s new apartment buildings or large scale condos which tend to be quite boxy, albeit efficient boxes. As one drives along the Mississippi river in Minneapolis you can see new housing going up at record pace and it is quite apparent that function has an edge over form. Many of the new housing units are reminiscent of Pete Seeger’s “Little Boxes” but these are big boxes. At the same time many public school budgets are increasing funding for STEM programs and cutting Arts (both visual and performing) budgets. This is a travesty and need not be.
So why is it so difficult to bring arts into STEM education? I believe it’s because STEM outcomes are much easier to quantify, and in today’s data-driven decision making environment, this is what policy makers want – quantifiable data. Science is all about testing a hypothesis and finding out if it’s correct or not. Modern Technology itself is based on a binary number system of 0’s and 1’s or yes and no. Engineering is based upon quantifiable measurement (weight, length, stress, etc.) and most Math that is taught in schools seeks to find the correct answer. All of these areas of STEM can be measured through testing that has right and wrong answers. This is not so in the case of art. As the old saying goes “Art is in the eye of the beholder”. Art involves emotion, passion, cultural background, and interpretation that is not easily measured. Most people agree that the Mona Lisa is a great work of art, however there are many arguments as to why this is the case. Some say it is the overall beauty of the subject while others say it is the mysterious smile and her aloofness. Scholars still argue why this is considered the most famous painting in the world. Hardly quantifiable.
Yet it is the arts that give us our humanity. Qualities like beauty, splendor, uncertainty and awe are the very things that set us apart from other living creatures. Most people enjoy a magnificent sunrise or sunset but would be hard pressed to tell you why in quantifiable terms. Instead you hear people describe a sunset in terms of beauty, awe (did you see that awesome sunset last night?) and how it makes them appreciate the wonders of nature. You will hear people say the Northern Lights are amazing and make them sit back and dream or feel a connection to something greater. Again, not quantifiable.
So how do we integrate things that are quantifiable into areas that are not? Perhaps we should look to the Leonardo Davincis, or Frank Lloyd Wrights, or the Steve Jobs of the world. These are all individuals who understood the connection of both. While many people think of Davinci as an artist, we need to remember that he was also a curious scientist who spent much of his adult life exploring how machines (both living and non living) work. Wright is remembered as an architect and engineer but aesthetics were of primary importance to him. Of course we all know that Apple has always considered the look and feel of its product to be almost as important as what it does. This is evident when new Apple products are presented to consumers and the design and look of the product become a big part of the promotion.
After looking at those who understand this connection, teachers and educators must examine their own biases and leanings. Do you tend to see the world as an artist or a scientist? Are you more comfortable with concrete answers or ambiguity? Once you reflect on these traits within then ask yourself “how can I challenge myself to see things from a different point of view.” As an artist how can I better appreciate the quantifiable? Or as a Scientist “how can I better deal with questions that may not have any quantifiable answer?” Once this is accomplished it is easier to invite others over to your side. Art (both visual and performance) teachers should be talking to teachers in the math and science department to see how they might collaborate on projects. Perhaps a unit in visual arts focusing on the paintings of Monet can invite a botanist to talk about the lily pads that are featured in a painting. Or a band teacher can invite a math teacher in to talk about timing and tempo and the science of musical cadence. Or a physics teacher can bring in a photographer to talk about the beauty of the photos from the Hubble telescope.
Hopefully we can make the current STEM education drive into a STEAM movement. When we do this we will continue to make productive moves in our overall education system and continue to lead the world in creative inventions and products that not only work well, but also, appreciate and embrace the aesthetics that make us who we are.