What is the Role of Art in Science Education?

by Melissa Harding

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“The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin… or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.”
– Mae Jemison; doctor, dancer and first African American woman in space

What inspires people to choose a science-based career? What inspires those scientists to make great discoveries and innovations in their fields? There is a growing body of research that suggests that creativity may be the answer. Creative thought is crucial to innovation; moments of insight require creativity to create bridges between ideas and make clear links that were hidden to the thinker.  In a series of discussions with scientists at the Eurpoean Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), an international research institute in Geneva, Switzerland, researchers found that the institute’s many scientific leaders ascribed three qualities to the making of a good scientist: rigorous intellect, the ability to get the job done and the ability to have creative ideas. They all emphasized the synthetic nature of creativity – it brings together previously unrelated thoughts to create something new and exciting. To quote one respondent: “Creative scientists have the ability to step back from what’s happening in the lab and look at the big picture and put things in perspective”. They are also unafraid of tackling something new, while still having the humility to understand how little they know.

If creativity is so important for the creation of good scientists, then it only makes sense to nurture this trait in students. One way to do this is through multidisciplinary education, combining art with science. As has been shown through teaching science and literacy together, merging two separate subjects can have big results. In 2008, the DANA Arts and Cognition Consortium, a philanthropic organization that supports brain research, assembled scientists from seven different universities to study whether the arts affect other areas of learning. Several studies from the report correlated training in the arts with improvements in math and reading scores, while others showed that arts boost attention, cognition, working memory, and reading fluency (Source). Need more proof? A recent study found that Nobel Laureates are more likely to pursue artistic hobbies and endeavors than the average scientist. A separate review found that, out of twenty featured scientists, those who engaged in artistic past-times tended to publish high-impact, highly cited research. Even Scientific American is touting the change from STEM to STEAM. Clearly, art is important in science education.

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In fact, art is not so different from science – at least in practice. Both art and science are driven by the need to interpret the human experience, whether by painting a flower or dissecting it to understand its inner mechanisms. Additionally, both art and science require good observation and deduction skills. To quote Albert Einstein, “The greatest scientists are artists as well.” He believed that his innovations came from creative intuition, just like those of an artist. Art is also a way to inspire curiosity and wonder. Some students may not be initially interested in science, but can be lead to methods of scientific thinking through art projects that directly relate to science topics.

One reason that this approach is so effective in engaging students is that it addresses the whole child. Children are naturally creative and artistic; they are good at finding new solutions and thinking outside the box. Bolstering students’ creativity by default also increases their critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities and collaborative spirits. Children like art and find the free expression of painting, sculpting and drawing to be fun and liberating. By pairing this natural love of art with science, you are truly creating an engaged and excited child. At Phipps, we try to combine science concepts with photography, art and the sensory experience of horticulture to get students curious and connected to the natural world. While some students that come through our doors are plant lovers, many more come for the art and stay for the science. Art also helps children to feel emotionally connected to the world around them, which research also shows is what creates future naturalists.

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However, the arts are also worthwhile for their own sake. Without both artists and scientists, the world would be a very dull place indeed. The way that art interprets the world is very different from science, but equally relevant to the human experience. We still need a future generation of musicians, artists and photographers. The same curiosity and drive that make a person a scientist also make a person an artist; both scientists and artists have the skills needed to become successful adults.

An easy way to encourage artistic expression is by spending time outside, which naturally promotes both art and science together. Not only is the natural world rich in beauty, but it is also rich in complexity; both are interesting lenses with which to see the world.  Additionally, try integrating some of these practices into your play and family time: dance, photography, poetry writing, creative writing, nature journaling, music playing and appreciation, painting, drawing, sculpting, gardening, and nature crafts. Making up dances together as a family, taking photos on a hike or planning a colorful garden are all easy ways to engage your child in both art and science.  These activities also engage your child in the natural world, creating a life-long connection that will serve him well emotionally and intellectually for years to come.

The above photos were taken by Christie Lawry.

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