Art and science: The links between two disciplines

Art experiences help children develop skills used in science, technology, engineering and math.

Photo: Robert Root-Bernstein, MSU.

Photo: Robert Root-Bernstein, MSU.

In the last several years, educators at all levels have been struggling with tight or bare-bones budgets. In the process of meeting budget guidelines, we have been forced to narrow our focus and cut programs for children. At the same time, educators have been charged with preparing children for the current and future job market. The focus has been well-paying jobs in the fields of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).

Some educators have struggled with this narrow focus, lamenting the loss of arts education and opportunities for children to practice creative skills. And now, science is supporting this claim. They are turning STEM into STEAM, with the “A” standing for Arts.

In their jointly-authored book, “Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People,” Michigan State University professors Robert Root-Bernstein and Michele Root-Bernstein highlight several strategies that all creative people use to problem-solve and innovate. A careful review of these “tools” reveals they can all be practiced during art activities.

For example, the Root-Bernstein’s talk about “imagining” as one of the tools all creative people use. Through visualization, we create mental images that can be translated into other mediums—words, music, movements, models, paintings, diagrams, films, sculptures or mathematical treatises.” Did you catch that last one—mathematical treatises? Art activities support mathematical thinking by providing an opportunity to develop the skill of imagining. Mathematical and scientific skills are part of the cognitive domain of development.

Other examples show how art experiences support other domains of development such as language and literacy development. One of the necessary skills required for literacy development is the ability to represent ideas and feelings in a symbolic manner. Painting, drawing and sculpture are just three ways young artists represent their thoughts or stories. Using the Root-Bernstein method of thinking about creativity, we might consider symbolic representation as “analogizing,” which is defined as “finding an association between things that are otherwise unlike. It is the bridge between the known thing and the unknown one that needs to be understood. We teach and learn by analogy and metaphor.”

Another very powerful tool of creativity all educators are familiar with is “playing.” The Root-Bernstein’s define play as a skill that “strengthens mental skills whether it is practice, symbolic or game play. It provides a fun and risk-free means of seeing from a fresh perspective, learning without constraint, exploring without fear. Play transforms knowledge and builds understanding as new worlds, personas, games, rules, toys and puzzles are created—and through them new sciences and arts.”

These are just three of the 13 “tools” people use when they are involved in learning and creating. The Root-Bernstein’s are among the increasing number of researchers, scientists and educators who have found that a grounding in the STEM disciplines is not enough if we want to prepare our children to face a complex world.

In an interview on YouTube, the Root-Bernstein’s make a case that links the arts and sciences. Put simply, they say “Art + Science = Innovation.” Isn’t innovation one of the major goals of education?

If you would like to explore more information about the benefits of art experiences, please refer to the following book and websites:

For more articles on child development and early childhood education, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.