STEAM: A Manifesto

We need Arts education, too

I often describe myself as fluent in math, music, and English.

I started piano lessons at age 4 and spent the next 17 years immersed in the practice of classical music. Just as relevant, I took to mathematics from an early age, digging into the applications of matrix algebra in cryptography and internet security before I learned to drive.

When I got to college I brushed aside everyone’s advice to “specialize” and “focus,” instead double-majoring in mathematics and theater studies, with additional coursework in music and physics.

But upon graduation I found myself struggling to decide between pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics or a career in the arts, convinced I had to choose, once and for all. Which road to take: one of analysis and logic or one of artistry and imagination?

I didn’t realize at the time that I had forced myself into a false dichotomy. In fact, the choice was never between “either/or,” the choice was only “and.”

Over the last few years, the increasing visibility of high-tech startups has spurred an interest in early childhood fluency in the STEM disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. I fully support initiatives like the Hour of Code and the integration of tools like Codecademy into curriculum as Chicago Public Schools recently has done.

But STEM education isn’t enough. We need STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics.

A recent study from Michigan State University analyzed a cohort of students in the Honors College from 1990 to 1995 who majored in STEM disciplines. The multidisciplinary researchers found that 93 percent of the STEM graduates reported musical training at some point in their lives, as compared to only 34 percent of average adults, according to the National Endowment for the Arts. The STEM graduates also reported higher-than-average involvement in the visual arts, theater, dance and creative writing.

“The most interesting finding was the importance of sustained participation in those activities,” said Rex LaMore, director of MSU’s Center for Community and Economic Development, speaking on behalf of MSU regarding the study. “If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed, or articles published. And that was something we were surprised to discover.”

It seems that these disciplines are not in opposition to each other (despite the never-ending “left brain / right brain” polarity), nor are they even two sides of the same coin. Rather, they are on a continuum, both “avatars of human creativity,” in the words of astronaut and dancer Mae Jemison. In her 2002 TED Talk on the subject, Ms. Jemison describes it thus: “Science provides an understanding of a universal experience. [The] arts provide a universal understanding of a personal experience.”

Studying music, visual art, theater, dance, and creative writing develops the mindset for creativity, curiosity, and collaboration: three important tools that spur innovation. Research, after all, is merely formalized curiosity, as Zora Neale Hurston wrote in “Dust Tracks on a Road.” And artistic skills like analogies, playing, and imagination translate into tools for solving complex problems.

Take the Pantheon, for example, a nearly 2000-year-old architectural and engineering wonder.

Bran Ferren, a technologist, artist, and inventor, gave a 2014 TED talk on the “miracles” required to conceive, design, and build the Pantheon — that is, “things that are technically barely possible, very high risk, and might not actually be accomplishable at that moment in time.”

Creating something like the Pantheon requires an extraordinary imagination and audacious vision, said Ferren, a result of multidisciplinary thinkers who bring together the worlds of design and engineering. “These people don’t spontaneously pop into existence, they need to be nurtured,” said Ferren.

That nurturing means building fluency across the STEAM disciplines, teaching individuals to integrate, rather than silo, their learning. It also means building resilience, with failure and iteration playing a necessary part of the creative process.

It is audacious to believe you can create something from nothing. It is also inherently difficult. Developing a bold vision, attracting and retaining the right team, demanding an uncompromising attention to detail, executing a plan on deadline and within budget, and committing to a goal no matter the hurdles: these are the arduous tasks that separate the dreamers from the doers.

And yet, for the future of invention, innovation, and artistic expression, it is imperative that we have individuals brazen enough to try.

In the eyes of Bran Ferren, “the ingredients for the next Pantheons are all around us, waiting for visionary people with multidisciplinary skills to make them.”