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why STEM kids need the arts, photo by Cindy James

Why Your STEM Kids Need the Arts

How art helps all students—even science-minded kids—succeed in the classroom

Tarrant County mom Seleena Carroll was in search of balance. Her 13- and 7-year-old daughters excelled at dance and music, so she started seeking out fine arts schools for them. But something was missing.

“We were looking for a school that would allow them to be in musicals or choir but also had very stringent academics, and it was kind of hard to find,” she says with a laugh. “The schools we looked at were very imbalanced.”

Carroll finally landed on All Saints’ Episcopal School in Fort Worth, which she believes offers a balanced blend of art and academics. The mom feels that both elements are necessary for her daughters to succeed.

“My oldest daughter wants to be a surgeon, so she needed a strong science department as well as fine arts education,” she explains. “Fine arts is an outlet for my girls. It helps with anxiety and risk-taking.”

Carroll’s hope for a more holistic approach to her kids’ education is backed by science: Research has shown that art and science-based learning share a closer link that we might think, and that academic performance and general well-being are both heightened by the inclusion of fine arts in learning.

“Art touches everything, from the use of all of our senses when we create art, to developing language and math skills.”

This research, combined with a movement away from “test-based learning” to a more holistic career-readiness education, is causing a revival of fine arts in schools, after widespread struggles for funding in recent years. As North Texas schools move from a STEM model (science, technology, engineering and math) to a STEAM model (emphasizing art in the curriculum), the importance of art to the growth and development of our tech-minded kids is becoming clear—and having art on the brain might even set them up for a more successful future.

Welcome Back to the Classroom

DeSoto art teacher Cynthia Garrison is in her 17th year of teaching, and she is overjoyed to see the arts finding new meaning and value for children. But why are the arts finally getting the credibility they deserve?

“We are teaching art in a different way now,” Garrison says. “On every campus I have been at, there is an alignment with what students are doing in the classroom. This reinforces basic concepts in a much more hands-on way.”

The idea that art has a place in other disciplines is not new; studies have shown a direct correlation between mathematicians and musical ability, and art has long had applications in engineering and science. Only in relatively recent years (meaning the turn of the 20th century), as the Second Industrial Revolution started to shape education into a specialized model, was art parsed out as a discrete subject and not taken as seriously, since it was not needed to educate industrial workers.

Now, as the United States moves toward a STEM-based economy, those highly valued jobs in science, technology, engineering and math require a different type of education, one that allows for creation, collaboration and problem solving, and art is moving back into the picture.

Evidence that supports the inclusion of the arts in the 21st-century curriculum is abundant: The National Endowment for the Arts found that a child who studies the arts is four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement. A study published by Americans for the Arts reveals that sustained music and theater education correlated to higher achievement in math and reading.

That’s because art shapes the brain in ways that can help all students, not just those who have a knack for creative activities.

Garrison understands the need for art not only as a teacher, but also as a parent. Her youngest son, who is now 23, was inclined to “more left-brained thinking,” as Garrison puts it. He excelled at school from an early age, but Garrison says she could see the need for the balance that art could give him.

“When he was young, he had a teacher who was very excited about his potential, and he was in an academically rigorous class,” she explains. Still, something was missing. “We actually had him moved to a class where he could be more creative,” she says. “It was important to me to develop the whole child, and I think that is one of the many benefits of art education.”

RELATED: 15 Places to Experience Art Around Dallas-Fort Worth

Introducing the Whole Brain

Previously, the notion that “left-brained” children are exclusively inclined to more logical pursuits while their “right-brained” counterparts are more adept at creative endeavors, such as the arts, might have made parents feel that they had to pick one track for their child’s ultimate academic success. But new findings show that “left brain” and “right brain” are not so clear-cut.

Andrea Davis, a Dallas-based art therapist, says new research into stroke victims is showing that people who damage the right side of the brain are still able to participate in art-based pursuits, leading many therapists and scientists to believe that art touches more parts of our brain than we previously realized. She states that the “either/or” notion of science vs. art is not true to what we know about how our minds work.

Techne is actually the Greek word for ‘creativity,’ so I don’t really see how it can ever be separate,” she argues. (Editor’s note: Techne is often translated as “art” or “craft”—it refers to making or doing as opposed to knowing.)

A recent cognitive research study in Germany found that creating art actually stimulates interaction between different parts of the brain, with German neurologists Anne Bolwerk and Christian Maihöfner noting an increase in functional connectivity in the brains of people who actively engaged in art.

Eric Jensen’s book on neuroscience and education, Arts With the Brain in Mind, conjects that art is much more than a brain booster—it is more of a brain food: “The systems [that the arts] nourish, which include our integrated sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional and motor capacities are, in fact, the driving forces behind all other learning.”

Jensen’s thoughts are supported by a growing body of research that suggests music training enhances brain functions in both hemispheres, including cognition, language acquisition and sensory processing. In other words, learning to play an instrument prepares the brain to acquire other knowledge too. The visual arts have a similar effect.

“We are still learning all the time that there is so much more to learn about how art affects the brain,” says Davis, “but what we know right now is that it goes far beyond a left brain or right brain functionality to the importance of art on the whole brain.”

Garrison agrees that art is integral in creating a well-rounded learner. “Art touches everything,” she explains, “from the use of all of our senses when we create art, to developing language and math skills, to understanding scale and design. It is a huge part of learning.”

She points out that art is often first to introduce engineering concepts, such as scale and negative space, the use of a grid and the principles of design. “Something like spatial relationships, that is a fundamental of art but also of science,” she says.

Full STEAM Ahead

Many North Texas schools are now making that same connection between science and art. They hear the demand for STEM-based jobs and the benefits of art and blend them together to create STEAM curricula, where art means STEM to produce a well-rounded learner.

Larry Labue is the executive director of the Allen STEAM Center through the Allen Independent School District. He says that Allen ISD heard the call from local companies for graduates to be more well rounded in content, soft skills and blending STEM skills with creative and artistic design—the arts are the answer.

“There is a huge market for STEM-based jobs but what we were hearing from employers was the need for an emphasis on creativity and collaboration,” he explains. “Art does that.”

Labue, a former science teacher, was on the committee to help create the STEAM Center and says that building art into the curriculum is natural, because just as math exists in science-based activities, many principles of art, such as spatial awareness and design, are found in science as well.

“Even as we were thinking about what the actual building would look like, we were using art as a principle of design,” he explains. “Design is a huge element of engineering. Our high school students study interior design for that reason.”

Engineering is the sweet spot where science and art most frequently meet in education, says Labue. STEAM curricula integrate the arts in a number of ways, but central to each school is the engineering design process, a combination of the scientific method and artistic creation. During the engineering design process, students identify a problem then come up with possible solutions by building models or making sketches.

For instance, let’s say the problem is plastic straws and the students are tasked with creating an alternative. The students would identify the problem, sketch a prototype of the solution, use a 3D printer to create it and then test and tweak the model, combining the creativity of art with the scientific process to mimic the way we seek solutions in the real world.

“In a job, we rarely differentiate between subjects,” Labue points out, explaining that the engineering design process is a whole-brained approach that powers the STEAM learning model. “Our teachers have interdisciplinary conversations—they pull in threads of different subjects to create lessons that bring in art with the STEM learning.”

“Art opens your mind to see the world in a different way.”

At the heart of the STEAM movement is balance. “We are trying to create a student who is well rounded and ready for whatever the future holds,” says Labue. “In creating the STEAM Center, we have created that balance to prepare them.”

The idea that STEAM students have a competitive edge in the workforce is also backed up by clinical studies. Research done by Michigan State University psychologist Robert Root-Bernstein has put a fine point on the matter: Most Nobel Prize–winning scientists and their high-achieving peers all dabbled in fine arts, while their “less successful colleagues” did not.

Davis, the art therapist, says the connection between art and STEM is foundational. “Art is really the only subject that integrates all other subjects,” she points out. “Whether we realize it or not, we use to math, science and language to create expression through art.”

She believes that excluding art from the curriculum might be short-changing students not just in their education but also their whole well-being. “It’s just smart to approach it with a holistic approach,” she says, noting that the benefits of art go far beyond education, extending to how kids handle their emotional health in a turbulent world.

Art and the Heart

As a therapist, Davis urges parents to consider art education as an important part of creating a whole-brained child who can function in a 21st-century classroom—and world. Cynthia Garrison, the art teacher, agrees.

“Art is therapeutic,” Garrison explains. “It’s very calming, and the art room is generally a peaceful place where kids can be both relaxed and engaged.”

She believes that art fills an important space in our mental health—a place where we can allow our minds to relax but continue to work. Garrison feels messages about the value of art sometimes get muddled by parents who fixate on the “starving artist” stereotype and do not realize the influence of art on other pursuits, or on a child’s holistic development.

“Don’t view it as a negative thing,” she says. “You certainly can use art in almost any job to give you a skill set that will set you apart, but most importantly, art is self-expression and risk-taking. It’s important to encourage it.”

Davis echoes the benefits of art on a disquieted mind, pointing out that in a time when childhood depression and anxiety are at an all-time high, art gives children a way to self-regulate and process their feelings. This social-emotional learning piece, perhaps more than academic readiness, is an invaluable tool for today’s children.

“Being able to externalize things in a way that words don’t express—the visual process of it—is healing,” she explains.

She reveals that depression, even in creative kids and teens, can manifest as a sort of stress paralysis that can be overcome through art. “When we are doing art,” Davis says, “we are helping them access a part of them that helps them to make choices.”

Her assertion is backed up by a National Institutes of Health research publication, “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature,” which states that “creative expression” through art is healing to the parts of the brain affected by depression.

Recently, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that music also promotes social-emotional health, specifically social skills and self-esteem, by allowing artists to take risks and make mistakes in a safe environment.

Seleena Carroll sees theses social-emotional benefits of art at work in her daughters.

“It gives them a chance to work out their own kinks, and I am such a fan of that,” she says. She believes that the combination of creative and rational elements that her girls are getting at their new school is vital to their growth in and out of the classroom.

Garrison agrees that art can make any child stronger—as a student and as a person.

“Art opens your mind to see the world in a different way,” Garrison explains. “It’s the opportunity to expand your outlook and perception, to take chances and become as well-rounded as possible. It’s for everyone.”

Building Little Learners

Nancy Bernardino, principal of the STEAM-based Solar Preparatory School for Girls in Dallas, says that parents can and should incorporate STEAM themes into early learning whenever possible.

“Parents may be more STEM-focused, but I hope they consider adding the arts because that’s where the innovation happens,” she explains. Exposure to the arts enables growth while giving kids the freedom to get messy, she adds. “It eliminates the idea that things have to be completely perfect.”

She says mixing in art with early education should be easy and fun. “Three- to four-year-olds are already predisposed to STEAM learning,” she says, “because the root of STEAM is curiosity, and they are so naturally curious.”

In North Texas, we have a wealth of resources for STEAM learning. Bernardino offers a few ideas that will take you out of the house:

  • Visit a museum that mixes science and art. “The Perot Museum does a great job at integrating the arts,” she says. 
  • Make Lego masterpieces at the Legoland Discovery Center. “Our kindergarteners start out using Legos to build creativity.”
  • Attend a children’s theater performance, which exposes children both to the theater and to principles of design as they study the set and how it works in the space.

Overall, Bernardino says anything that brings a sense of wonder to a child is good for building a STEAM mindset. “Our goal is to keep the child curious,” she explains.

This article was originally published in October 2019.