I’m Pretty STEAMed

Galileo, Thermometer, 26, Measurement, Temperature
Seriously, Galileo didn’t have to make this thermometer look so nifty.

Are you more of a math/science person, or do you have a head for the arts/literature/language? Unless you said “both,” you are patently wrong. The false dichotomy between artistic and scientific endeavors is a relatively recent one. Consider some of the great minds in history and it becomes apparent that you don’t have to limit yourself to one very specific area of interest. In fact, I’d like to suggest that doing so is detrimental.

Galileo is most associated with astronomy, but he first trained as a physician, studied mathematics, and then fine arts. He applied his artistic education to the design of inventions like an early version of the thermometer. He even taught classes at the Academy of Art and Design in Florence, Italy. How about Leonardo da Vinci? Everyone knows him as a polymath. It would be a mistake to assume that his natural genius led him to investigate all different fields of knowledge. Rather, modern research has confirmed that studying a multitude of topics is what results in mental breakthroughs. Properly harnessed, ADHD is far from detrimental. It may even be useful.

We don’t have to look in the distant past for great minds like this. Herbert Simon was a political philosopher who won the Nobel Prize in 1978. In economics. While pursuing a career in computer science. Many people have heard of Howard Hughes because he was known as an eccentric millionaire. He became wealthy, however, through engineering, aviation, and later as a film producer and photographer. Sherlock Holmes was created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who worked by day as a physician.

There has been an unfortunate movement in education over the past several decades toward more and more specialization. The argument in favor of doing so is that it produces people who are fully suited to their vocations. So what happens when such a person decides to pursue a different interest? S/he has to return to school for an extended period of time to train in a new specialization. Given that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the average Baby Boomer changing jobs 11.9 times between ages 18 and 50, it’s safe to say that almost no one will take up a single job and work it until retirement. 

Persian rug, or geometric fractal? Math can be beautiful

The problem, therefore, is specialization. The solution is STEAM. Science, Technology Engineering, Arts, and Math. By training young people in both the arts and sciences, we’re really providing them with additional ways to think. There’s nothing new about this. Really, the concept of teaching each individual the full breadth of subjects has ancient roots. Beyond just content knowledge with obvious relation to a given profession (e.g. math classes for an accountant), educators of the past in most of the world’s organized pedagogical systems gave their students skills in an array of fields. Confucius suggested that the ideal person should have abilities ranging from music to mathematics to archery. The point, he maintained, was that education is about cultivating integrity.

When we work with future scientists and engineers, I propose that we shift our focus a bit. Yes, a knowledge of mathematics is important, but we also need to be sure that the people building superweapons are ethical. We value health professionals, but no one wants a nurse or doctor who doesn’t understand people. Automobiles can be designed with great efficiency by stripping out all nonessentials, and yet no one would choose to ride in a rolling metal box. So much for why design and psychology are important. Problem-solving, too, is aided in this way. For instance, we know that multilingual brains simply work better. The same is true for creative brains, which, I believe, has been a significant factor in the majority of supposed geniuses over time. There is likely nothing going on in the brains most great thinkers that can’t be replicated by the rest of us.

That said, this goes the other way, as well. Artists, philosophers, and musicians all need to learn the natural sciences. Music and math are two parts of one whole. When an artist can solve a mechanical problem, it may yield inspiration for social, emotional, and other very human issues. Carl Sagan was an astrophysicist whose greatest contributions were decidedly unscientific. The achievements of science can stir in us a sense of the truly extraordinary. As we follow the humanistic whims to dream about reaching distant goals, those impulses can be put to good use. Art is inspired by and then inspires scientific accomplishment.

Besides, well-designed space suits look pretty cool.