Guest Column: We can move education forward with a little STEAM

Ever since the space race in the late 1950s there has been a concern about American students lagging behind the rest of the developed world in Science and Math. More recently, there has been a push to emphasize science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in order for American students to compete globally. And the value of STEM has been put into monetary incentives. During the Obama administration, former President Obama, speaking at a General Electric gas plant, said, “I promise you folks can make a lot more, potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” While this comment only spoke to the monetary value of post-secondary education in manufacturing and trades, it is in stark contrast to a commentary on education made by our second U.S. President, John Quincy Adams. Adams said, “I must study war and politics so that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy…in order to give their children the right to study painting, poetry, music, [and] architecture.” The educational vision of John Quincy Adams more than 200 years ago, compared to the reality of today’s market value of education and training expressed by Barrack Obama, gives us pause to ponder where we’ve come from and where we’re going with our educational system. Should we forget art history and advise all of our students to go into the trades; or is there a way to integrate knowledge and skills in order to produce productive, creative, and prosperous citizens?

 The commonality between the educational ideas expressed by Presidents Obama and Adams is they perceive education and training as compartmentalized. Obama viewed the trades in one category and art history in another. Adams considered the study of war and politics separate from math and philosophy, and those subjects separate from art, music and architecture. And the recent trend for STEM education has also compartmentalized science, technology, engineering, and math from the rest of the curriculum. The STEM disciplines are targeted for two reasons: 1) American students lag far behind the other industrial countries in math and science; and 2) there is a perceived shortage of jobs in these disciplines. I say “perceived” because the data doesn’t support this perception. In addition to the perceived job shortage, I believe something else is still missing.

 In my own research a number of years ago, I tested a hypothesis about the interconnection between creativity learned in arts disciplines and the ability for scientists to invent. I examined the backgrounds of approximately 80 scientists that made significant contributions through inventions in western civilization.  This inquiry started with Leonardo da Vinci in the late Renaissance and went all the way up to the late twentieth century (the present time of the research). I found, with the exception of two inventors, every scientist that made life-changing contributions to western civilization had an arts background. For example, Leonardo da Vinci was as good of an artist as he was an inventor; and Albert Einstein was an accomplished violinist as well as a scientific genius. My conclusion was that without creative problem solving, such as the creative process developed through the arts, scientists are confined to analyzing the inventions of others.

 The results from that research would be justification to change STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). There is greater value in holistic education in which we provide a well-rounded education that develops both the right (creative) side and the left (analytical) side of a child’s brain.  There is no reason why our educational curriculum must exclude certain disciplines — or place lesser value on certain subjects. 

Even in some of the traditional vocational programs that have evolved into what are called Career-Tech Education programs, students seeking degrees and certificates find an integration of the curriculum that requires creative thinking.  It has been with considerable thought that students are required to complete courses in general education that balance out the strict skill-development of the vocational courses.  Required painting courses, for example, are common for students pursuing a degree in auto collision repair. Creative thinking is not just a talent, but also a learned skill. 

 We have the data from research on the benefits of holistic education and we have examples of best practices on integrating the curriculum. If we truly want our children to acquire the skills necessary to not only get a job, but become the best they can become in their chosen field, then instead of putting a market value on specific educational disciplines such as training in manufacturing and art history, maybe we should put a value on all education and demonstrate our value of education by supporting all components of education that lead to a prosperous society. Expanding STEM to STEAM is a good first step.             

Dr. Kerry Hart is Interim President of Trinidad State Junior College