From STEM to STEAM: A heightened focus on the arts is breeding a new generation of renaissance scientists

by | Jul 6, 2017 | Feature Stories, Lead Story, Summer 2017

For Richard Sebastian-Coleman ’16, senior year at Mines was an exceedingly busy one. But not in the way some might imagine for a budding engineer.

On weeknights, he raced from his last lab to rehearse with the orchestra or string quartet. Weekends brought rehearsals with Mines Little Theatre, where he portrayed Egeus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Monster in Young Frankenstein, while also serving as the club’s president. In the wee hours of morning, after his homework for his wastewater treatment class was complete, he often turned to reviewing poetry and art submissions for High Grade, the school’s literary arts journal, of which he coedited.

“In terms of breadth, Mines had a huge amount of opportunity for a student interested in the arts,” says Sebastian-Coleman, who now works as an environmental engineer in Colorado Springs. “I felt like it gave me a unique mindset. It also kept me sane.”

Sebastian-Coleman’s experience illustrates what many see as a welcome new embrace of the arts by Mines and other STEM-focused institutions in recent years.

“In the past 10 years, there has been a growing interest in reintegrating STEM and the arts—in turning STEM into STEAM,” says Mines literature professor Toni Lefton, referring to a burgeoning national movement calling for science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) to become the new acronym for informing policy and education.

While art and science were once viewed as inextricably linked—think Leonardo da Vinci and other polymaths of the Renaissance era—that ideal largely fell away with the Industrial Revolution, explains Lefton, replaced by silos in which science was seen in one realm, driven by facts, and art in another, driven by emotion. This disconnect was exacerbated in part by the budget cuts of the 1980s, which hit the arts hard, and educational policies of the 1990s and 2000s, which emphasized STEM education while deemphasizing the humanities, she notes.

But as a new generation of students seek more creative learning opportunities and employers call for graduates more willing to take risks and think outside the box, arts are making a comeback, not just as a hobby, but as an integral part of science education.

Today, Mines hosts more than a dozen arts-related clubs, arts-themed communities in the residence halls, minors in music and literature and an artist in residence who teaches an arts-related course each semester. It also hosts a STEAM alumni interest group, a growing number of “maker spaces” where students can spontaneously come together to create things and a growing array of classes that meld art with science.

“There is a ton of progress being made around this issue,” says Lefton, who arrived at Mines in 1999 and has been instrumental in boosting arts-related offerings at Mines. “I’d love to see us get back to that era of Renaissance thinking.”

The Link Between Art and Science

Reach back into the history books and you’ll find a long list of famous scientists who got their start in the arts. Long before Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, he was a gifted childhood pianist. Samuel Morse, who developed Morse code, was an accomplished painter. Rufus Porter, who founded the magazine Scientific American, was a muralist and drummer.

One recent study titled “Arts Foster Scientific Success,” by Michigan State University physiology professor and creativity researcher Robert Root-Bernstein, suggests that the most accomplished scientists also tend to be the most artistic. For instance, Nobel laureates, when compared to other scientists, were 22 times more likely to be actors or dancers, seven times more likely to be visual artists, and two to four times more likely to be musicians. They were also three times more likely to engage in some kind of art than members of the general public.

“In sum, successful innovators in sciences and technology are artistic people. Stimulate the arts and you stimulate innovation,” concluded Root-Bernstein.

But exactly how does art inspire scientific advancement?

Neuroscience offers a few clues: A sweeping 2008 review by the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium, a collaboration of neuroscientists using brain imaging to look at the link between arts and cognition, concluded that participating in performing arts boosts internal motivation and the ability to sustain attention: dance training strengthens neural networks that help students learn by observing, and music training enhances working and long-term memory as well as reading acquisition.

Others have pointed out that, fundamentally, artists and scientists have similar goals.

“Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us: What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?” writes John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a leader of the STEM to STEAM movement. Creativity, he and others say, is central to finding the answers.

In engineering, a field where communication with diverse stakeholders is vital, the metaphors that art and literature provide can also serve as a common language, says Lefton, noting how illustrations, artistic graphic representations, storytelling and even poetry are being used in Mines’ classrooms to elucidate everything from quantum physics to the structure of DNA.

“We have to come up with more innovative ways to teach this material, and integrating the arts into it makes it more accessible to different types of learners,” she says.

The arts and humanities also foster something else that science, traditionally, has not been known to cultivate: empathy. And in careers like oil and gas development and mining, where decisions made can have a big impact on people’s lives, empathy is key.

“How do you walk a moment in another’s person’s shoes? How do you empathize with your stakeholders and end users? There is no equation or textbook that is going to teach you that. That is what literature and music and the visual arts can do,” Lefton says.

How Art Informs Science

For Lydia Muwanga ’07, the choice between arts school and an engineering education was an agonizing one. Growing up in Aurora, Colorado, she was winning coloring contests early in elementary school. By middle school, she realized she “had a gift.” And by high school, her art teacher was urging her parents to send her to art school. Wanting the best for her, they steered her toward Mines instead, where they imagined her skills in math and physics would take her far.

“I was determined to find a way to combine the two,” says Muwanga, who came to Mines in 2002 to study mechanical engineering.

At first, she was disappointed by the lack of arts offerings. “They didn’t have much. I knew we needed to do something about it.” She found a few like-minded visual artists looking for a place to come together, reserved a small room in the Student Center and displayed over 50 pieces of art from students across campus for the first art show. The Creative Arts Club was born.

Muwanga now owns a business, Suubi Innovations, using her unique skillset to create digital products, including websites and mobile apps. She notes that artists and engineers have something else important in common: they both “start with a purpose” and must create something out of nothing.

“Artists have a time when they diverge to generate as many ideas as possible and a time when they must converge and create the piece. It is a similar process for today’s engineers,” she explains, pointing to a trend toward “design thinking”—a creative early-stage brainstorming process with its roots in Silicon Valley. She learned design thinking after graduating from Mines from a product design firm that had creative engineers focused on brainstorming innovative ideas and creating one prototype to learn and iterate quickly. Muwanga says this process combined with creativity and innovation can help the world move forward.

For her, the earliest stage of the engineering process—the innovation—has come easier to her due to all those years of starting with a blank canvas and playfully experimenting with strokes before zeroing in on a strategy. “I think my background as an artist has made me willing to take more risks,” Muwanga.

How Science Informs Art

Award-winning photographer Evan Anderman MS ’93, PhD ’96 says that not only can art fuel good science—a science background can inspire novel forms of art.

“I was always interested in the technical aspects of photography—how the camera worked, what it would take to make a good exposure,” he recalls of a childhood in which he traveled the globe snapping photos alongside his dad (who operated an oil and gas company).

After more than a decade as a geological engineer, Anderman retired in 2005 to pursue a full-time career as a photographer, using his technological savvy and scientific eye to develop a unique craft he calls “social landscape photography.” An avid pilot, he bought a single-engine Cessna 206, had an autopilot installed to enable him to take photos from the air and fine-tuned his photographic techniques to reduce blur despite the plane’s swift forward motion. He has since dedicated himself to shooting photos of the Colorado landscape to bring awareness to things people might otherwise not see.

One bird’s-eye view collection of photographs, “In Plain Sight,” recently on display at the Denver Public Library, illustrates how humans have imposed themselves on the landscape, via everything from feed lots and chicken farms, to sprawling subdivisions, to coal-fired plants and oil and gas drilling operations. “I realize these are activities we need to help keep our society going, but I also think it’s important for people to know what the environmental costs are,” he says. “I hope my work will spark a conversation.”

Art for Art’s Sake

Job skills aside, other alumni say the arts offerings at Mines gave them something that was harder to come by a few decades ago on campus: a reprieve from the academic pressure.

“There were days when I would go to the music room and just barricade myself in with my cello to get away,” recalls Jess Allen ’16, who turned to composers like Bach and Rachmaninov for comfort when calculations and labs left her feeling stressed or hungry for something deeper.

“Engineering is wonderful. But there are certain things it just can’t give you, and for me, the arts have kept that part of me alive,” says Allen, who now works as a water resources engineer for Denver-based Calibre Engineering and plays in the Arapahoe Philharmonic.

Sebastian-Coleman has also maintained his double life.

By day, he works to keep Schlage Lock Company in compliance with environmental regulations. By night, he dons wigs and costumes and rehearses with one of several local theater companies, which quickly welcomed him into the community and helped him meet people when he first moved to Colorado Springs to start his new job.

He believes that engineers today need the arts more than ever.

“Before computers could do huge calculations, engineers had to do as much number crunching as designing. Today, much more is being asked of engineers. Being able to think creatively and about the broader impacts of your work can really set you apart, and it’s through participation in the arts that you get experience in asking larger questions,” he says. “I credit my arts background for helping me land my first job out of college. I was lucky to be at Mines when I was, at the beginnings of this movement toward more artistic thought. I hope it continues.”