Settled in the heart of Silicon Valley, Stanford University is best known as a cradle to some of the world’s technology giants including Google and Yahoo. But the its also leading the pack in universities pouring big bucks into arts and culture spaces with a new, $235 million arts district that includes a theatre, gallery, art history building, and an “arts gym” set to open next year.
“I think it’s very important, as the university gains in reputation in fields associated with Silicon Valley, that we send the signal that art matters, even to students who go on to work in the valley or business,” Matthew Tiews, the executive director of arts programs at Stanford, told the New York Times.
That signal that “arts matter,” in STEM or any other discipline, is not one that every education institution has received. Even at some of the other universities the New York Times has profiled, there’s debate regarding how much the new arts and culture buildings really add to the schools’ academics. Changing this line of thinking, at universities and in K–12 schools, is at the core of the national push for stronger STEAM education—or STEM with the inclusion of arts and all the skills they nurture.
Another prestigious school, the Rhode Island Institute of Design (RISD), is a leader in pushing for the connection of the arts and sciences. The school’s STEM to STEAM Initiative works from the belief that arts and design will be just as critical to innovation in this century as science and technology were in the last.
Sculptor and RISD alumni Rebecca Kamen works closely with scientists to develop her pieces. A few years ago, after giving a lecture at the National Institutes of Health, a student introduced her to the drawings of Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who is often considered the father of modern neuroscience. Kamen was so inspired by his work that she sculpted a piece based on his drawings of the human retina and then traveled to Spain to study the archives of his illustrations.
Kamen told RISD she believes Ramón y Cajal’s breakthroughs wouldn’t have come about without his arts background.
“Artists are universal investigators,” she said. “We look at everything from different angles, rather than going down a straight path. That’s when discovery happens. That’s what wins Nobel prizes.”
Countless examples show how arts influence sciences and vice versa. Still, bridging the two isn’t always easy in a classroom. With schools facing tightening budgets and standardized testing pressures, time spent on music, drama, or painting has too often been pushed to the back burner or cut entirely. In Chicago, for example, a recent survey of 170 public schools found 65 percent don’t offer the two hours of arts education per week as expected by the district.
But proponents of including the A in STEM believe that much more than sculpting or painting is lost when arts are cut. Rather, arts, they say, are another way of instilling problem solving and honing divergent thinking—the very things that lead to forward motion in science, tech, engineering, or math. Whether at a university level or a first-grade classroom, arts don’t always spark scientific discoveries, but they encourage a different way of creative and imaginative thinking like they did for Ramón y Cajal.
In addition to their benefits to scientific thinking, experts like Education Week writer Anne Jolly remind us that the arts are valuable on their own. She asked Dr. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, about whether the A really belongs in STEM.
“I don’t have strong views about whether arts should become a part of STEM or be self-standing,” Gardner told her. “What is important is that every human being deserves to learn about the arts and humanities, just as each person should be cognizant of the sciences.”
Whereas universities might be pouring millions of dollars into arts and cultural institutions, kids should be introduced to all the letters in STEAM much earlier—whether at school or in informal learning spaces. From product design to Popsicle stick architecture, an education that prepares kids for the future can’t afford to leave anything out.