Arts and creativity lost in shift to STEM

Originally published in the November 18, 2016 edition of The Chronicle.

Calculators instead of clarinets, Einstein instead of Shakespeare, systems instead of sonnets. Do you see a trend here?  It seems that in the push to expose students to more science and technology related education, the result could be a decreased emphasis on art and creativity.

STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – is a buzzword around the Mason City School District, but research shows that the arts provide students with a skill set that helps them excel farther academically.

Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium, a philanthropic organization conducting brain research, conducted a study in March 2008 that examined the effects of music education on attention and test scores.

The scientists took a group of 88 three to five- year-olds and collected their baseline test scores.They split the students up and engaged one group in music-related activities daily for eight weeks.They found that this group had significantly higher test scores in the non-verbal, spatial, and numeracy sections of an IQ test.

Senior Faith Kim has done Science Olympiad and taken multiple advanced science classes, and she said that the skills gained from playing the cello and making visual art has helped her to think more creatively.

“Doing art helps you to be more creative,” Kim said. “Creative thinking and problem solving, especially because those are huge aspects when you are making a piece of art, I think it transcends all subjects. Especially (with science) where problem solving and finding ways to solve your problems are a huge part of it.”

Kim said this is especially evident in physics.

“With physics, which I am taking right now, the problems that we have to do require a lot of thinking and thinking in different ways,” Kim said. “(We use) a lot of formulas to try and solve a problem, and I think being able to think creatively helps with that.”

Language Arts teacher and Speech and Debate adviser Melissa Donahue said the arts provide students with skills vital to success in STEM fields.

“Speech and debate, from an artistic standpoint, carries over to the STEM areas,” Donahue said. “I have many students that really develop analytical skills, (and) critical thinking skills, that I know you certainly would need to use in the STEM fields as well. In fact, many of the people who are in Speech and Debate or take (it) as an elective typically go on to fields like medicine or engineering.”

Even work done behind the scenes in the artistic fields prepares students for many types of careers, Donahue said.

“You may think of Speech and Debate as something that’s going to involve more of your public speaking skills and performing in front of an audience,” Donahue said. “(But) there’s a lot of behind the scenes work and preparation I would imagine a lot of science, math, (and) technology majors also use on a daily basis.”

The arts provide students with additional skill sets that they would lack with just math and science, Donahue said.

“I think it’s that idea of having that confidence or communicating in front of others,” Donahue said. “Learning the social aspect of it, beyond just the intellectual or the educational aspect of it, I think it’s that social component, and the idea to be able to empathize or sympathize with others (that) an arts education or focus is certainly going to help you excel in that area.”

While Donahue said she understands the focus on STEM, the arts are not receiving as much credit as they should be.

“(It’s) almost as if we maybe belittle an arts education,” Donahue said. “(We) think that something like Speech and Debate, or performance types of courses, or music, or art education is less important because of the big push to science and math, so in some cases, we might gloss over (the arts).”

Science teacher Joseph Schnell said there is a connection between the arts and STEM that helps stimulate more parts of the brain.

“There have been a lot of studies done that the arts, such as music, stimulate the parts of your brain that relate to STEM,” Schell said. “And I think having a wide body of knowledge allows you to make more connections than you might otherwise be able to (make).”

Such studies include one from the University of Utah in which scientists analyzed more than 1,000 brain scans of people ages seven to 29 in order to better understand lateralization: the preference to use a certain side of the brain over the other, Live Science, a science news website, said.

They analyzed more than 7,000 regions of the brain when the test subjects were at rest and concluded that on average there was an equal number of neural connections on each side of the brain. The results debunk the myth that one side of the brain is predominantly used for creativity and the other for logic.

Potential modifications to STEM would be more beneficial to students, Schnell said.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis (on) trying to change from STEM to STEAM,” Schnell said. “It’s basically, science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics, and including (arts) as a piece and sort of wrapping them all together. I think that is a more beneficial and worthwhile approach.”

Schnell said an understanding of one field, such as science, makes another, such as music, easier.

“They sort of feed each other,” Schnell said. “If I say that it changes pitch from high to low, that’s a change in frequency as well. It allows me to better understand what frequency means in a context that I’ve experienced before.”

Many people assume that they can only excel in one aspect of academics, Schnell said.

“I think a lot of people just identify one thing that they’re good at and they sort of shut out all the others,” Schnell said. “I don’t think that’s a great approach. A lot of times, problems that you are trying to tackle can be benefited from looking at it from a different perspective.”

An open mind will help students better see the connection between both fields, Kim said.

“Just (be) open-minded and try to see the relationships between the two because they’re everywhere,” Kim said. “I don’t think you should limit STEM and say ‘Art doesn’t go there,’ and I don’t think you should limit art by saying science can’t be involved in it.”

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