Adding the arts gives STEM programs STEAM


CHICAGO, January 15, 2014 — It’s more of an art than a science. We hear it often when someone is trying to say that there is no exact answer or straightforward path to a result. Raising children is more of an art than a science. Cooking is more of an art than a science.

What this phrase does not account for, however, is that quite often science is more of an art than a science.

Science, we are taught, is about the physics and chemistry of all things. Questions have answers. Why is the sky blue? The sky is blue because of how the sun’s light is refracted and absorbed as it comes through our atmosphere.

Art, at its core, is the expression of emotions. The sky in Van Gogh’s Starry Night is not intended to be a peaceful lullaby.

VanGogh-starry_nightWhile science and art would seem to be opposite ends of a spectrum, they are not that easily separated. Art cannot be created without science. Music is the mixing of sounds, emotions and math. Dance combines physics and biology with emotion. And one of the first lessons we learn in art class is the chemistry of yellow and blue make green.

Conversely, the new questions that keep popping up in science cannot be answered without a whole lot of creative thinking.

Emily Graslie of Chicago’s FieldMuseum has both an intriguing job title and an intriguing idea. As Chief Curiosity Correspondent for the museum, Graslie recently wrote an op-ed for Crain’s Chicago Business in which she suggested joining artists with scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians to allow “diverse perspectives to fill and create new opportunities across multiple disciplines.”

Those “diverse perspectives” are the key to keeping both the arts and sciences alive. A new perspective is what brought about impressionism, cubism and jazz. It also led John A. Rogers of the University of Illinois to discover that silicon, used to create computer chips, can be flexible. Rogers took an ordinary silicon chip, in essence his big hunk of marble, and fiddled with it. He sliced it incredibly thin. He sliced it at a slightly different angle. He threaded it into a new pattern. He got creative.

The physical tools were vastly different, but the mental tools that gave Michelangelo his David gave Rogers’ his flexible silicon. And it adds a whole list of possibilities to what Rodin’s Thinker was thinking about.

Rogers’ creation has opened a whole new world of science, with its obligatory questions. What else does it do? What can we do with it? If it’s given a certain chemical wash, it becomes spongy and can be used as a stamp pad. All those wires connecting hospital patients to monitors may someday be replaced with a hand stamp. Make them thin enough, and they can melt. Biodegradable cell phones, sensors that monitor our oceans for a certain amount of time and then dissolve into the seawater, and electrodes that mold to the contours of the brain or a beating heart are all within reach.

But they wouldn’t be anything more than fantasy if someone hadn’t added creativity to curiousity, art to science.

Unfortunately, the world of science is full of Newtonian laws and periodic tables that must be learned. Classroom science instruction is often boring and tedious, turning off many students who have a creative bent. But classroom science instruction is vastly different from science itself. Answering science’s how’s and why’s requires creating: new machines, new methods, new materials, new ideas. School budgets are not equipped for such investments, and school testing does not leave a lot of room for creativity.

There are scientific rules than cannot be denied. The trick for scientists is to learn the rules, but not let their thinking be defined by them. In Rogers’ case, that training started early. In a recent Smithsonian Magazine article, Rogers says that conversations around his childhood dinner table with his father and mother “instilled the notion that creativity and the arts are kind of a natural part of science. Not just the execution of it, but the implications and insights that flow from it as well.” Rogers’ father has a PhD in physics. His mother is a poet.

Precision and creativity. Curiosity and inspiration. Science and art. These combinations can rock the world, and they’re powered by STEAM.

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