Why Science Needs Art, and so do we all


“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
John Muir

Every so often, when I tell people that I write a blog about interdisciplinary education for museums, schools, and the generally curious, the response I get is a generic “That’s cool!” while their faces say quietly “What?”  and “For heaven’s sake, why?”

Why indeed.  At its most flippant level, the answer is ‘because it’s fun.’   However, there are serious reasons to advocate for interdisciplinary learning, and every so often I feel the need to point out just how many people agree with me.

For instance, graphic designer, computer scientist, and author John Maeda (who also happens to be the founder of Second Life) claims that “Innovation is born where art meets science.” In answer to the question “Why does science need artists?” he replies

We seem to forget that innovation doesn’t just come from equations or new kinds of chemicals, it comes from a human place. Innovation in the sciences is always linked in some way, either directly or indirectly, to a human experience. And human experiences happen through engaging with the arts – listening to music, say, or seeing a piece of art.

For this reason, he advocates for turning the tenets of ‘STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education’ into ‘STEAM,’ including the arts to promote innovative thinking and a greater acceptance of ambiguity.  (For more good background on the whats and wherefores of STEM Education, check out this excellent New York Times article, “STEM education has little to do with flowers.” Unsurprisingly, this article also points out the many benefits of looking at the connections between these subjects as opposed to the ‘silo’ approach.)

The Common Core Standards, which are slowly being adopted nation-wide, are also supportive of interdisciplinary education, though the standards are of necessity organized currently under the major umbrellas of English language and literature, and Mathematics.  Consider this benchmark for third grade, located under the ‘comprehension and collaboration’ strand in the English standards:

Determine the main ideas and supporting details of a text read aloud or information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally. [emphasis mine]

Visually–the reading and comprehension of artwork, symbols, photography, and motion pictures.
Quantitatively –the reading of charts, graphs, and numerical results.
Orally — the comprehension of spoken words, theater, lyrics, music, etc.

These are true interdisciplinary skills, necessary in all fields and for life in general.  And beyond the development of life skills, interdisciplinary education and exploration has been shown to promote creativity.

John Muir, environmentalist

The power of imagination makes us infinite.
~John Muir

Miller Mc-Cune reported this spring that studies have shown that experiencing different cultures can make you more creative, as can thinking of yourself as a seven year old.    (As I regularly travel and visit toy stores, this is good news for me all around.)

Check out The Walters Art Museum’s two interdisciplinary classroom units at their teacher resource page, Integrating the Arts, for some examples of how this could be done in connection with a museum or in  your own space.

The Dance of Youth, by Pablo Picasso

“All children are artists.  The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
~Pablo Picasso

What steps can be taken, once we’re ‘grown up,’ to keep that creativity alive?  (Other than visiting museums and giving ourselves permission to play?)  The Idea Hive has some suggestions: The Subtle Art of Provoking Serendipity , including gathering diversity and making connections.  Interdisciplinary learning in the workplace as well as the school and the museum.  I love it.

‘The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” but “That’s funny.”‘
~Isaac Asimov

Has all this put you in the mood for some fresh ideas?  Open up the multimedia Moodstream created by Getty Images and let your brain start popping.

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