Art of Science Learning


Within certain education and policy circles the acronym STEM (i.e., science, technology, engineering, math) has become a common term, used frequently to be inclusive when referring to a broad area of scholarship and enterprise we deem particularly connected, i.e., those listed four subjects. How, or even whether the acronym is understood and fashionable outside these education “insider” groups is not well know. What is known, though, is that the acronym and associated term is not well defined even within groups that make heavy use of it.

When we say STEM, do we simply mean any of the four subjects or do we mean those areas in which some of the four, ideally all four, overlap? My sense is that most people simply mean Science OR Technology OR Engineering OR Mathematics when referring to STEM, though there are some efforts under way, including some at the National Academies, that mean to explore whether education can benefit, just as research already does, when the four are somehow linked.

Now add the arts and you get STEAM. And since no one in his or her right mind would simply want to add “arts”, believing that it belongs in the same space (for then, why not add history, philosophy etc. and end up including everything and anything), there is a specific theory of action that those who talk about STEAM have in mind when adding arts to science, technology, engineering and math. So, why or how does the A then fit into the STEM to form STEAM?

I see two major claims. The first one refers to art as a different way of perceiving and knowing and dealing with the world, as a means to expand the toolbox of science and engineering. In engineering, which some summarize as design under constraints, art can provide a useful tool to make the engineered world or object more appealing and thus acceptable and useful to people. In science it is seen as a different way of seeing the world, a heuristic that leads to a better, or at least different understanding of the world. One example for this perspective is visualization, which empowers science research just as it does science education (see the Gordon Research Conference on Visualization in Science and Education).

The second claim is based on the limitations of scientific research and of engineering design, which some see as lacking creativity and fun. Art, in this view, is a means to free the scientist’s and engineer’s mind. It should be noted that highly selective STEM specialty schools encourage their students to pursue the arts, be that poetry, music, theatre, or any other aspect of it.

Both claims have some validity, I think, and both show us that art is but one additional component that would benefit STEM. Because, ultimately, wouldn’t we like our future researchers and engineers not only to be creative, but also critical, wondering what their work can and cannot do, and what consequences it may have? The recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami and its horrifying impact on Japan make brutally visible how we are in need of his kind of humility…


  1. #1 crowther
    April 3, 2011

    Good post. Your “two major claims” remind me of the Narrative Medicine movement, in which health care professionals (particularly physicians) read and write poetry etc. as a means of reflecting on aspects of patient care that are not purely science-based. I don’t know much about this movement, but I wonder whether it has lessons relevant to basic science education.

  2. #2 Taylor M.
    April 4, 2011

    Just the other day my advisor was talking to me about creativity in my work. He was specifically thinking of was to do new and creative experiments, but it got me talking with some friends and family about creativity in such a scientific field.

    One friend asked me what I was doing to fuel my creative side. He, being the more creative type himself, thought it very important to have some sort of hobby or interest outside of grad school to keep the other half of my mental gears in working order. I felt like I didn’t have many truly creative activities, merely ones that keep my body active (sports mainly). Your post just reinforces what I’ve been wanting to do lately which is find a wholly creative and artistic outlet.

    I definitely believe that those in the STEM field should take a cue from those in the humanities field and have at least one thing that stimulates their creativity and imagination. The best ideas often come from outside one’s field!

  3. #3 Nils Peter Mickelson
    April 4, 2011

    The entire discussion about STE(A)M is a sad distraction from the simplicity of the issue. We have corrupted the popular meanings of words so far from their roots that not one of us knows what the other is saying.

    “Art” is simply one’s ability to make things. “Art” bears no connotation to aesthetics, but rather deals with practicality. The art of making sharp arrowheads from a broken stone is far more important to a species’ survival and success than the art of making a pleasant painting. An “artifact” is a completed work of art — perhaps a birds’ nest or a pair of pliers.

    “Technology” is more complex, comprised of three words: “tek” plus “nai” plus “logos.”

    – “tek” is the ancient onomatopoeic word for chipping two stones together;

    – “nai” is the Greek affirmative, as in our English word “yes, that is done right;”

    – “logo” is a symbolic drawing, such as our letter “X” — the symbol for “tek;”

    – “tekne” is “technique” — a series of actions leading to a success; and therefore

    – “technology” is simply the written (as opposed to oral) record of how to complete a task that results in an acceptable result. A perfect contemporary form of technology is a cooking recipe, where the entire ingredients and process are so accurately recorded (yes, “logged”) that at any subsequent date one can read the technology and re-create the art in its original form. In manu-facturing (hand making), we call this today a “process specification.” By definition, technology has neither mass nor weight; it is an idea.

    “Engineering” — from the root “ingens” — is simply the practice of ingenuity. A baby who can roll over in her crib, or crawl on the floor, with no parental instruction is an engineer. The fact that we mispronounce the word “engine-er” (in French and German “ingenieur”) as if it has ears is simply a sign of our growing ignorance. A bird couple, who can build a nest from whatever local materials avail, is an engineering team.

    “Creativity” is the act of creation, derived from the root “crea” — to believe. In the act of creation, we visualize an opportunity, and then use art to reduce it to fact.

    “Science” is our process for obtaining and verifying knowledge. Myths and stories can be exciting and provocative, but discerning among them what is true and what is not serves us critically as we develop new technologies. How true is it that wire is stronger than string? Knowing the truth can guide our next steps.

    “Mathematics” is the tool of numeracy. In logging a process, it becomes helpful to accurately describe size and proportion and layout. In the arts, it is helpful to describe how many are to be made or shipped to a customer, or how much remuneration should be received. Knowing the distinction between a “bipod” and a “tripod,” for example. The tools of mathematics are invaluable, and by extension have allowed us to explore dimensions we could not otherwise fathom.

    It is our ingenuity that leads us to create, and in so doing devise language and rules for its proper use in recording what we have once done (a letter patent is a perfect example) so that others after us can build on our knowledge and success (and yes, our failure). The art of writing and building is used to spread our individual success universally, to the betterment of others.

    The ingenious tools of science and mathematics have been created to help and guide us as we build on our growing heritage of ingenuity.

    Our historical education process has evolved amidst this environment of curiosity and ingenuity, to pass along to future generations what has worked and what has not, and to train them in manipulating these useful tools so they may continue in our stead. To extract ingenuity from the education process after the first few years has proven to be a mistake, and we’re now trying to envision an education built around and authenticating our native ingenuity . . . from crib to adulthood.

  4. #4 Mindy Nemoff
    May 2, 2011

    I have always known that Art is needed to compliment ALL subjects! I sent a link to this article to the wonderful art teacher (who is my friend) who taught my girls, the Superintendent of the school district (knew her as Elementary Principal) and the chair of the Gifted Education organization I belong to locally. I get tired of hearing about only STEM, when STEAM is what is truly needed to cultivate a love of learning (with music included in the “arts” and physical education still required to combat obesity issues). This will allow future generations to work on being more “well rounded” – and I do not mean in the physical sense. We need all these subjects to be important to educators and students.

  5. #5 Linda Keane
    May 4, 2011

    Changing STEM to STEAM teaching adds 21st century transdisciplinary investigation and analysis, testing and evaluation to propositions. STEAM teaching introduces relationships between the built and the natural environment across nine scales of engagement- nano, pattern, object, space, architecture, neighborhood, urban, region and world. Check out’s art + science + environment K12 journeys.

  6. #6 Cheryl Manning
    May 5, 2011

    I will be working part-time in the classroom and part-time as an instructional coach next year. As a coach, I hope to create a STEAM atmosphere in my school, encouraging teachers to create classroom atmospheres that foster creative thinking (

    I understand that in the Science and Math classrooms, creative thinking needs to be backed up by logic and experimental observation. This “Constraint” has created an unfortunate environment of hierarchy, placing Math and Science at the top and the Arts at the bottom. This mind-set must be overcome for teachers to encourage “out of the box” thinking that comes with greater creativity.

    I welcome any thoughts or comments on how to address this problem.

  7. #7 Jennifer Kosmicki
    August 10, 2011

    I really liked this blog! I had to write a research paper this summer over STEM education changing to STEAM, and after all my research I think it is necessary to add “arts” to our standardized classes. Researchers have proven that with the addition of art have improved standardized test scores, and the students’ grades.
    Children consume so much media arts these days that during school they seem to just block out what they have to learn because it simply just does not interest them. School has nothing to do with a child’s life outside of school, which is mostly consumed of videogames and television. In one of the researches I read it talked about when you ask what a child wants to be when they grow up they do not say I want to be a chemist, they want to be what they see on t.v. like a professional football player, or a model. In order to improve a child’s understanding of standardized classes there needs to be a connection and the link is art.
    Because the success of the researches performed by the California Academy of Sciences, they have made a curriculum that has offered courses, and teacher workshops to help further the integration of science and art.

  8. #8 Leone Bowman
    October 17, 2011

    Babaganoosh here and this was such a treat, boost out another one asap

  9. #9 Sesli Chat
    February 7, 2012

    İyi bir yazı. Hangi sağlık profesyonelleri (özellikle hekimler) okuyup şiir vb tamamen bilim tabanlı olmayan hasta bakımı yönleri üzerinde yansıtan bir aracı olarak anlatı Tıp hareketi hatırlat, “iki büyük iddiaları”. Bu hareket hakkında bilmiyorum, ama dersler temel bilim eğitimi için ilgili sahip olup olmadığını merak ediyorum.

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