Through the Education Lens

How the Arts Prepare for a Life's Work in any Discipline

CJ Westerberg, July 24, 2015 5:26 PM


Related: Walter Isaacson on NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow:
Why Science and the Humanities are Better Together

"I actually explained my whole theory of immunology
to an entire art class at a college
JUST through visuals and they GOT it. 
I have many more problems trying to explain it to my students
through words
in my immunology classes."

-Dr. Robert Root-Bernstein (38 minute mark in keynote below)

 The Arts in STEM learning: what's missing in the conversation

DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

HERE (see note below*) is an outstanding keynote by Dr. Root-Bernstein, who after researching over 200 biographies of outstanding scientists found a correlation between their sustained art and craft avocations to their achievement in other disciplines, especially the sciences.  His talk begins with a quick display of childrens' art which quickly reveals a playful and powerful connection to some great minds.  In other words, this is not a passive Art Appreciation class here, folks, but a case for active and continuous making, doing, tinkering (especially in high school).

" . . . this is not a passive Art Appreciation class here, folks,
but a case for active and continued making, doing, tinkering.

Once that fun is over, however, Root-Bernstein delves deeply into how the skills and processes of art were relevant to these individuals throughout their professional lives (even since the majority did not end up being "artists" in the literal sense). A few quotes (some paraphrased) from the video:

"What we portray as 'the scientific method'
has no relation to the way scientists actually work."

"Through the data and watching how scientists work,
you'll find they work just like artists.

"Logic can prove but never invent.
Thus, our scientists are producing students illiterate
in the language and skills of creativity"

"Teach the creative process
Teach imaginative tools for thinking
Place arts on a par with sciences
Use common, cross-disciplinary language
Emphasize cross-disciplinary skills
Teach using exemplary people"


What makes Dr. Root-Bernstein's argument uniquely compelling is that he steers quite sharply away from much of the usual "arts for arts sake" dogma such as learning about the arts for appreciation, aesthetics, communication, participation, and life enrichment.  He admits that while his utilitarian argument for the arts may make some people "uncomfortable," the logic used in his presentation is ironically intended to punch a hole in the superiority of so-called logic-oriented disciplines (think: STEM) when compared to the arts which are often referred to as "non-academics." 

By highlighting the essential need for the arts for STEM learning, he paints a clearer picture of how insuring that STEM disciplines are not seen in isolation from the Arts (hence, the STEAM movement).  Interdisciplinary in approach. Not just as observer but as participant.  Not just for one semester here and there (sound familiar?). 
For example, according to Root-Bernstein, when the arts are taken by high schoolers over the course of 4 years, SAT scores improve almost 100 points (15:55 mark) which no other "subject" exhibits such a correlation. He admits measurements like these (standardized test scores) are not the way he would like to present this case but one has to do this to convince politicians and transform education. 

1) This is a great talk, but it runs about an hour in length so it's a plan.

2) You'll want to skip the voice-over/intro and start at the 1 minute 20 second mark. 

3) There is no embed code so you may have to download - (taking less than a minute) but you don't have to endure commercials!

Here's the link:

See more details below


Update:  Be sure to check out an extensive article on Math and Science education and why there are so few women entering and graduating.  I also commented on this piece.  - C.J.

A few facts about the featured keynote in above post:

This presentation was at the National Art Education Association 2011.

Robert Root-Bernstein is a professor of physiology at Michigan State University. In 1981, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a "genius grant." He has also researched and consulted on creativity for more than fifteen years.

Sparks of Genius. Thirteen Thinking Tools.jpgAt the 25:00, Root-Bernstein talks about the concepts in his book, Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People  as they relate to education and how we may incorporate them.

AT the 49:00 mark, Root-Bernstein shows how present day high schools only include (4) of the above-mentioned "thinking tools".
Alistair Hardy, Oxford zoologist
Eric Heller, Harvard Physicist/Chemist 
Joseph Lord Lister, Investor of Antisepsis - great observer
Niels Bohr, Inventor of Quantum Theory
Dorothy Hodgkin, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Nobel Laureate in Medicine
J.H. vant Hoff, the 1st Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in chemistry
Louis Pasteur, inventor of Germ Theory of disease and vaccination
Maurice Wilkins, Nobel Laureate
Pierre Duhem, a founder of physical chemistry
Niko Tinbergen, Nobel Prize winner in Physiology
August Kekule, inventor of Chemical Architecture,  Oxford University of zoology
Samuel Morse, inventor
George Washington Carver, American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor

 Related articles in The Daily Riff:

What's the Link Between "Design Thinking" and Creativity?
Interview with Tom and David Kelley from IDEO on Charlie Rose

Are we preparing students for our age or theirs?  by C.J. Westerberg

The Arts: Seeing and Thinking Differently

Math: Heaven and Hell featuring Stanford's Dr. Joanne Boaler video

Is Math Art?  A Mathematician's Lament

Time to Change STEM to STEAM


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  • Very advance piece of blog post and I've truly enjoyed reading through this post. About the arts in STEM learning whatever shared here is very educative and what's the conversation mission part is great. ...

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