STEM education: The influence of the arts and what organisations can learn from it

Steam typographic illustration.

More and more schools and universities are introducing arts in their STEM curricula. This is based on a recognition that creativity opens minds, develops emotional engagement and helps learners to internalise and visualise information. Whilst not all educational institutions have the flexibility and permissions necessary to rethink how STEM subjects are taught, the integration of these fields is an emerging issue in educational research.  

If the field of education is devoting time and effort to proving the positive confluence between the scientific and artistic fields, then how can organisations be taking note?  

In this blog, I aim to unpack this current trend and share my reflections and takeaways on how you can use artistic and creative activities as a positive force for innovation, problem solving and engagement within your teams.  

How STEM subjects and the arts are being combined to generate new understanding

You might be wondering, what is STEM? Especially if you, like me, are more arts and humanities inclined and the sight of a maths class on your timetable made you want to cry. Well, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and STEAM is all of the above plus a curriculum which incorporates the arts; which could be anything from dance to creative writing. The STEM subjects are widely recognised as being of prime importance for national economic competitiveness, greater upward social mobility and active citizenship and that our future workforce will need more young people specialising in these subjects in order to support the global economy. However, despite extensive investment by governments, including in the UK, the effort to attract more young people to STEM subjects and careers, patterns in participation have remained stubbornly resistant to change. This is where STEAM comes in. Research suggests that artistic training increases retention and recall, generates new patterns of thinking, causes plasticity, and results in strengthened higher-order cognitive functions related to creativity. Research also shows that STEAM activities conducted with children make them more active and capable of taking initiatives with their own knowledge. This is because the brain does not function in independent ‘departments’, instead, different areas communicate and influence each other, just as different disciplines can and should shape one another. In a simple way, you might have felt this if you have ever had an ‘aha’ moment whilst in the shower, gardening or doing the shopping. Our brains are working in the background making connections between seemingly unrelated things to produce answers and ideas.  

One notable example of how arts and tech cross-pollinate is that of Steve Jobs who, after dropping out of college, requested to audit a calligraphy class, even though there was no academic gain to be made from it. This class profoundly influenced him. The beauty and spatial considerations of calligraphic art shaped how he created the Apple typography; a definitive selling point for the brand that made them world leaders in their field. 

Enabling STEM and arts subjects to interact is so generative because ideas need to travel. I believe they come as an ideal pairing, contrary to government policy here in the UK which has slashed spending on creative education, incentivising subjects such as science and engineering at the expense of the arts and humanities. Why should one come at the detriment of another? For example, someone studying coding has much to gain from taking an interest — in the precision, attention to detail and structured thinking inherent to the composition of classical music, as someone studying the arts.  

As a ‘creative’ (even though that term gives me the ick because I believe everyone is creative), I’ve often endorsed, to myself, the limiting belief that I am both nearly  innumerate and unable to understand scientific principles. However, I have had my beliefs challenged by the work of an organisation called Information is Beautiful, founded by David McCandless. David and his team are dedicated to making sense of the world through graphics and visuals which communicate complex data and phenomena. Through their engaging and interactive visuals, I have been able to understand anything from how to get the world to net zero in 2050 to what streaming services actually pay artists. David and his team are actually in a long lineage of influential thinkers who have been both scientists and artists at the same time and have used one discipline to reinforce and influence the other.  

Leonardo Da Vinci believed that science and nature were inextricably linked and could not be fully appreciated without their synthesis. His infamous sketch of the ‘Vitruvian Man’ is possibly the best representation of his belief that science could unveil the harmony, beauty and proportion of the universe.  

Shedding different perspectives on reality

Whilst discovering Information is Beautiful was my first step to understanding how the artistic principles could improve my scientific comprehension, I have another example of how different ‘departments’ in our brain can productively influence each other with innovative results. I come from a theatre background and at the time when I needed to complete the first draft of my first full-length play, I had recently come back from an intensive Arabic course. I had reached a decent level in Arabic, that magic point where you start to think and dream in the language, proving that it has really penetrated your psyche. However, I was beating myself up for taking this all-consuming course at a time when I should have been focusing on writing in English; the self-flagellation coming from the belief that the Arabic language ‘department’ in my brain was entirely unrelated to the English language ‘department’. Once I stopped berating myself and actually got down to writing it, I discovered the opposite to be true. Sentence structure in Arabic has pretty much nothing in common with the English language, therefore, when you form a thought in Arabic you have to remind yourself to forget what you knew and start anew. This linguistic deconstruction/ reconstruction process my brain had been undergoing started to influence my creative writing skills in my mother tongue and I found myself articulating ideas and character dialogue in a way that was far more expansive and experimental than the way I had been writing previously. I thought that the two languages had nothing in common, which in many ways they don’t, but the ways they were able to influence one another in my brain proved to be deeply fruitful.  

How can arts have a positive influence in your workplace?

I’m a real believer that creative potential lies within every one of us, sometimes it just needs the right circumstances and encouragement to flourish. And, as outlined above, I believe that arts have a huge role to play in stimulating innovation across STEM disciplines. So, how to bring this into your teams at work? As a caveat, sometimes when I mention arts and creativity at work I see people tense up. I promise what follows will not be an outline for how you can get your colleagues to express their frustrations through interpretative dance or be forced to do an improv poem to the CEO. Instead, here are some suggestions to get you started on introducing arts and creativity to your workplace. 

1. Invite team members to design their dream workplace

Why not consider the presence of art and culture within your shared spaces (both in person and online), a factor that is proven to improve productivity.  Research by Exeter University’s School of Psychology found that employees who have control over the design and layout of their workspace are not only happier and healthier — they’re also up to 32% more productive. This is a creative activity in and of itself but your teams’ contributions may give you ideas you can put into place. 

2. Gamification

Good news, games, fun and play are not just for kids. Gamification is the use of game mechanics, like competition, a sense of quest and rewards to bring to life a topic or process. People tend to learn better and retain information better when they find game-like elements in learning. This is because this method offers challenges and rewards, motivating human beings to be fully involved in what they are doing. Google even gamified it’s travel expense claims process in 2018 which resulted in a 100% completion rate.  

3. Group theatre trips

If you’re looking for a team building or social activity to organise with your team, why not consider an outing to the theatre? On top of being highly enjoyable, watching a performance allows you to be immersed in stories of characters from different backgrounds and creates a meaningful shared experience that can provide a touchpoint for future conversations.  

4. Organise a book club

Organising a book club is a great way to bring team members of all levels together to engage in a meaningful shared experience.  Sharing and exchanging insights, ideas, and opinions about the selected books can foster innovative thinking and even inspire new approaches to your organisation’s projects and goals. 

5. Create vision boards

Vision boards can offer a tangible visualisation of goals and projects. This can help in communication as well as building buy in. You could also invite your teams to create their own vision boards in response to a goal or topic. This may highlight important differences in how team members see the same things; something which can be discussed and explored in order to improve team unity.  

6. Invite artists to speak to your teams

Whilst inviting motivational speakers and experts from your field is, without doubt, useful, inviting artists to talk about their process and influences can also benefit your teams. Artists are able to bring cultural and historic awareness, share insights about their creative process and inspire your teams to think differently. 

Final words…

There is a strong argument being made and months of research time being devoted to proving that arts enhances and deepens learning in the STEM subjects. What can we learn from this? Well, if the role of the arts is to question, disrupt and imagine alternatives, then we all need a bit of this. The arts can break down paradigms and open us all up to possibilities that we previously thought were unimaginable. For me, the main takeaway for organisations is that; creativity is like energy. It resides in all people but often remains untapped.  

Furthermore, whilst I don’t think I will realistically be winning the Nobel Prize for nuclear physics or boarding a NASA space mission any time soon, it’s important that we challenge limiting self-beliefs when it comes to our own intellectual endeavours and focus more on how our own unique abilities can be leveraged in a multitude of different directions. 

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