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Role of Art in STEM Education Studied

By Kevin Wilcox

The creativity and experimentation fostered by visual arts and music training can play an important role for students who pursue STEM careers.

January 7, 2014—Throughout history, some of the world's most accomplished professionals in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have had a profound connection to the arts and have even credited that connection with a measure of their successes in STEM.
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Research has revealed that the correlation between success in the arts and success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is strong—and may arise from the way the brain operates. Associated Press

Albert Einstein so enjoyed playing the violin, he declared that "Life without playing music is inconceivable for me." Thomas Edison enjoyed playing the piano so much that he attempted to develop one made from concrete to make them more affordable for working-class families. More recently, Brian Cox, Ph.D., a pioneering professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, was a keyboard player in the British rock band Dare.

"There are a number of eminent STEM leaders from the past who have also excelled in the arts. Why our society seems to have forgotten that, I don't know," says F. Richard Olenchak, Ph.D., the associate provost for faculty development and faculty affairs and a professor in the University of Houston's Department of Educational Psychology.

This connection between the arts and STEM success has led some to propose that the arts should be an integral part of STEM education efforts, putting forth a new acronym—STEAM. Olenchak is also the director of the Urban Talent Research Institute (UTRI) at the university.

"One of the emphases we have tried to make in our work is that there is a connection. Particularly in music and the graphic arts, there is a high statistical correlation between success in those fields and in the various STEM fields," Olenchak says.

Olenchak explains that the correlation stems from the way the brain operates. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans have shown that changes take place in the brain structure of children who received 15 months of music lessons. Musical training has also been shown to sharpen mental focus and self-control.

"But it also has to do, I think, with the structure of those disciplines," Olenchak says. "Music, particularly, is structured very much like mathematics. In fact, it is a mathematical field. For whatever reason, schools seem to have forgotten this. Part of our mission is to educate educators about the interrelatedness of these various disciplines so they can begin integrating the arts into the STEM fields."

UTRI was founded 12 years ago to "probe urban issues related to development of talent." To date, much of UTRI's work has focused on students in two high schools for gifted students in Houston: Carnegie Vanguard High School (CVHS) and the High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). HSPVA differs from some schools for the arts in that the students there are also academically gifted.

Early work at UTRI focused on how artistically gifted students and intellectually gifted students are similar and dissimilar.

"We have found, in actuality, they are more alike than they are different," Olenchak notes. "We found that people of high ability—whether in the arts or in STEM fields—tend to be wired more intensely than perhaps the general population. They tend to get locked onto something and that's it. Get out of the way."

UTRI's work focuses on recognizing and nurturing talent, and its work reveals that this process is incredibly fragile.

"Frankly, we've also found that where opportunities don't align with a student's interests, that student turns off," Olenchak says. "We could, frankly, extinguish students' talent if we cause too much in the way of discouragement. It's our belief that we are not very good as a society at identifying and then nurturing talent in young people. We seem to have to wait until it emerges in the adult population, which is a waste on some level. The hope is the kinds of interventions and the kinds of programs that are used at these two schools ultimately would serve as models for the broader population," he adds.

UTRI is set to expand the scope of its research efforts soon, when Ph.D. student Jay Young, Olenchak's mentee, begins to test a series of educational interventions in STEM programs at the Children's Museum of Houston. Looking for the first time at younger students, Young's research goal is to assess the impact of incorporating art into STEM programs.

"Through the after-school program known as A'STEAM the museum will provide hands on kit-based lessons to partners, targeting second- through fifth-grade students," said Young, in written comments to Civil Engineering online.

"The A'STEAM program really tries to build well-rounded lessons by adding components that demonstrate creativity to the students and allows them to exercise their own creativity by designing and building their own projects," Young said.

"The A'STEAM program is still in its nascent stages and right now we are evaluating it with a combination of different types of measures to see what is going on," Young said. "Most STEAM research involves older students who essentially have an 'identity' and integrating art into STEM means having different groups collaborate with each other.

"However, since A'STEAM targets such a young audience ... we are using projective measures—like Draw-a-Scientist—to help us understand how the students view themselves as well as the field of science. Additionally, our evaluations also include math and science tests as well as observations of the students in the program and students' work," Young explained.

Young, who has a degree in physics and, like Olenchak, has taught mathematics, sees art as an important component in bolstering creativity in STEM fields.

"As someone with a science degree and who has taught mathematics, I think art can emphasize two important components necessary for a quality STEM education," Young said. "The first component is actually experimentation. Students do what are called experiments in their science class, but they are not really experiments. Students are simply following instructions to see something cool. A lot of experimenting happens in the arts though. And there are plenty of reasons why actual experimenting happens more in arts classes than in science. It is safer.

"The second component is creativity, which is related to doing experiments," Young said. "Students are not allowed to be creative in science classes. They are following instructions. Creativity is necessary for scientists, engineers, and mathematicians though."


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