Arts-Based Learning for Science Education

We're working on a series of projects related to arts-based learning as applied to science education and STEM (Science Technology Engineering & Math) skills.  We don't have a name for the program yet.  Perhaps the Art of Learning Science, or ArtSTEM? Suggestions welcome!

In developing the proposal, we did some thinking about what the arts have to contribute to science. Those thoughts are outlined below, divided up into four different categories of value:

1.  Experience in the arts can help develop general creativity skills in the context of STEM-related topics, problem-solving and workforce objectives (e.g. innovation, design thinking, new technology & product development)

Although there are wonderful arguments to be made for learning science as an end in itself ("science for science's sake"), much of the present interest in STEM skill training is due to our concern about the U.S. competitive position regarding global economic development, new technology and new products. Many of the same individuals and corporations who are advocating renewed emphasis on STEM learning also advocate training in innovation and creativity for the U.S. workforce, particularly for the engineers and technologists who will be expected to apply STEM-based knowledge in creative ways to new and more competitive products and services.

"Design thinking" is one methodology that has been gathering enormous momentum in a wide range of U.S. corporations. The compatibility of arts-based activities and learning with design thinking and other innovation processes is widely recognized. The arts regularly practice problem definition, ideation, prototyping, collaboration, and iterative work styles and arts-trained practitioners are welcomed in innovation workshops and product design studios.  In a world where churning out tens of thousands of narrowly-educated graduates with engineering degrees and ISO 9000 certificates is no longer a differentiating factor, the more appropriate goal might be to balance analytic and creative learning and help STEM professional be comfortable with a variety of processes and work styles.  Here are a links to a few of the many ongoing discussions around these topics:

  • "Innovation is a science with rules, processes and established tools that requires the participant to think like an artist." The Art and Science of Innovation, Jeffrey Phillips, a senior leader at OVO Innovation
  • Jon Kolko and Richard Anderson, product development and user experience consultants, discuss the issues in On Design Thinking, Business, the Arts, and STEM ... "the baseline of STEM knowledge taught to our children has no parallel in design. So when college students encounter one or two design courses in their business training, which is focused on lateral thinking, abductive reasoning, and reframing, they have no deep, tacit knowledge of fundamental design principles upon which to build."
  • David Edward's latest book describes how "contemporary creators achieve breakthroughs in the arts and sciences by developing their ideas in an intermediate zone of human creativity where neither art nor science is easily defined".

2. Arts-based metaphors and mental models can provide a framework for new concepts for scientists and researchers. 

There is a long tradition acknowledging the use of mental models and metaphors from the arts when researchers are groping for new concepts and upsetting old paradigms.  Different from the general value of the arts in process work, the value of artistic metaphor in conceptualization depends on scientists and engineers having a broad portfolio of specific metaphors in mind to match with specific conceptual situations. Examples range from Niels Bohr's citation of cubism as an inspiration to his work in early 20th century physics to M.C. Escher’s prints in relationship to neuroscience and psychology; see discussion by Jonah Lehrer The Future of Science…Is Art?

3. Specific arts disciplines can be used to help explicate or communicate specific STEM concepts.

In addition to the value of arts in product development and scientific practice, the arts have great application as a explication or communication tool in conveying science and math content to diverse audiences.  In visualization, in dramatization, in making the abstract tangible and exciting, the arts can “humanize” science and open the door to greater understanding.  Here again there is often a match between a specific arts discipline and a specific scientific discipline trying to reach out to a broader student population or public dialog.

  • The Tate Museum and the Royal Society are bringing together scientists and artists to imagine the social and psychological impacts of climate change.
  • The 2010 meeting of the BioCommunications Association,  Association of Biomedical Communications Directors and the Health and Science Communications Association will showcase the use of the arts, creativity, and popular media technology to meet communication challenges in healthcare and science
  • The Broad Visualization Group was founded by an artist to support the work of the Broad Institute (MIT / Harvard) in genomics, biology and medicine.

4. Arts elements in STEM learning programs  have the potential to increase the attractiveness of science and math subjects to students who also value creativity and expression.

To come full circle, we’re now invested as a society in motivating more students to devote their lives to STEM careers. One of the most common assumptions by students about science and math subjects is that they are dry, boring, inflexible, impersonal, objective; that there is no room for expression, creativity, or style. One result might be that a large segment of the student population, those with both analytic and creative impulses, who would otherwise be interested in and valuable to STEM professions fail to pursue the rigorous educational requirements because they don’t see something completely fulfilling at the other end. More aggressive and thorough programs to blend the arts into STEM learning and STEM content into arts learning could have huge benefits in terms of recruiting for STEM careers.

  • Ken Robinson on the needs for arts education in post-industrial economies, advocating a more broadly-based curriculum: "You would certainly be doing science and math and technology, but you would be doing them in different ways. There would be much more emphasis on project work, on discovery, but you would also be doing art and music and dance and theatre. You’d be doing interdisciplinary sessions, where you would be learning math through theatre; you would be using math as a way of enhancing learning and dance for example."
  • A PBS documentary explores the fascination of astronomy to artists and the arts to astronomers ... "The musician and composer William Herschel became one of the most important astronomers of the 18th century. The rock guitarist Brian May—who was earning a PhD in astronomy when his rock band, Queen, began making hit records—is one of several contemporary musician-stargazers. Another is the musician , who is seen in the film imaging a gamma-ray burst 11 billion light years from Earth and who (among other gigs) once played bass for Prince."