From STEM to STEAM – Arts Education: Key to Growing Next Gen Technology Innovators

Growing next-gen technology innovators requires a word change- from STEM to STEAM. The case for STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and its supreme importance to a thriving economy have been successfully made in both the business and academic worlds. Credit is surely due to those who have taken steps to support STEM efforts in schools and clubs across the globe. What has been severely under-valued and not yet fully understood in mainstream thought, particularly in the US, is the critical role that arts education plays in growing capable scientists, app developers, and statisticians. Cellist Yo Yo Ma recently wrote that STEM-only education, while important, is “short-sighted” in that it concentrates on the brain’s neural pathway for critical thinking and virtually ignores the empathic pathway which is key to creativity – and that elusive innovation so desired by business and academic leaders. While the human brain can’t ‘turn on’ both pathways at once, recent advances in neurobiology make it clear that the brain does balance reason (critical) and emotion (empathy) through a sort of loop-back process. “These discoveries suggest that a new way of thinking is possible,” writes Ma, “a new consciousness – perhaps a new Enlightenment – that brings the arts and science back together.”

A considerable number of educators, artists and scientists are joining in the call for a movement from STEM education to STEAM education – adding the A for ‘Arts’. The idea is supported by scholarship citing effects of both visual and performing arts on brain function and making a clear case for the relationship between arts education and the integrative awareness necessary to create the real, empathic communications necessary in the technology business. In the tech sector and in society at large, we want to be sure we’re not simply pushing isolated information from one inbox to another. Shortchanging development of the empathic pathway means limited creativity, hence limited innovation.

Visual Arts
The good news is that students don’t have to be violin prodigies or artistic geniuses to gain this integrative advantage. A recent Dana Foundation article on The Arts and the Brain quotes Christopher Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute on recent research concluding that just looking at Visual Arts positively impacts keenness of perception, motor control and emotions. And these benefits are even more enhanced if the individual is creating the art instead of simply viewing it. “Learning and performing visual art, such as drawing, has the power to enhance memory and spatial cognition, even in the blind,” he reports.

Then there’s Dance. Psychology Today asks “Why is Dancing So good for Your Brain?” concluding that dancers’ practice of “marking” steps (marking is a process whereby dancers slowly run through the steps they are learning mentally and by substituting hand, finger and forearm motions for the actual steps, turns, leaps, and jumps) creates a connection between the creative thoughts behind the choreography and its actual physicality. The article cites work by scientists writing in Psychological Science which reveals study results concluding that dancers who learned steps by slowly marking them, memorized and integrated their step sequences better than those who practiced the actual steps with their full bodies at the choreographed speeds. This is significant because marking synchronizes the cerebrum and the cerebellum and creates “superfluidity”, a superior consciousness enabled by fostering the loop-back process between two neural pathways – experience and performance enhanced by ongoing communications between these two parts of the brain.

Lots have been written about Music and the neurology, maybe even more than on Dance and the Visual Arts combined. I especially love the book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” by Oliver Sacks which I won’t cite here but highly recommend as a fascinating (and entertaining!) read.

Fast Company’s Work Smart feature, “The Surprising Science Behind What Music Does to Our Brains” covers the numerous neural benefits of listening to and learning to perform music, including improved motor and reasoning skills, auditory discrimination, vocabulary, and non-verbal reasoning skills and analyzing visual data. All great brainpower tools for the innovative technologist.

Arts and Innovation
Drawing the conclusion that successful innovation occurs when the outer reaches of the technology bandwidth are looped into the far end of creative thinking means one must argue the immediate importance of STEAM education. Yo Yo Ma concludes that developing the empathic neural pathway is “severely missing in education today that is only STEM oriented. Everyone wants innovation,” he says, “recovering that inspired, innovative spirit of JFK talking about going to the moon. But you can’t skim the top without the rest of it.” And, he says “The arts teach us that there is something that connects us all and is bigger than each of us. It is a matter of equilibrium, of centering the ego at the right point of balance between the individual and the community.”  And I would argue, at the nexus of what’s needed for optimized innovation in a fully realized culture.