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STEM or arts education? We’ve been asking this question a lot in the media lately, and honestly, all signs point to it being a false binary. I value education, technology, and arts. It’s why I do what I do. The arts are academic to me and they inform how I approach technology. Irrevocably separating the two is a fool’s errand.

In approaching this debate, I find myself going back to the advice Charles Eames gave students about the role of art in education:

It would never occur to me to consider art as a subject apart from any other in the curriculum. Art education increases in value to the degree that it is related to the whole academic picture. I see art education as a kind of thing that threads its way through every facet of academic work.

(emphasis mine)

The recent hyper-focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education originated from an Institute of Education Sciences 2012 study of comparative high school curriculums. The results showed the United States held critically low standards of education and was being outpaced by other nations, especially in math and science proficiencies. The current federal and state pushes toward Common Core standards in public schools are the most visible (though politicized) result.

It’s not just public schools, either. For many private schools, this pop culture buzz has resulted in more parents asking for STEM programs and schools trying to restructure themselves accordingly.

For both public and private schools, the new focus on STEM education trickled down from universities all the way to pre-kindergartens. Parents want to help foster the “right” kind of learning from the start to give their children success later in life. “Future tech” is big business. No parent wants to feel they’ve failed to prepare their child for a tech-laden world. Parents want to explore every opportunity to give their child a leg up. And it’s difficult to feel prepared when technology is exploding at at exponential rate. We’re preparing for theoretical outcomes. The future moves faster than ever.

However, many schools’ STEM approaches come at the expense of arts programs. Budgets are reallocated to make room for technology and arts and music programs across the country are shrinking as a result. Children are learning core basics, but these cuts come at the greater cost of depriving children of courses that are beneficial to brain development and creativity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Some of the most inclusive and forward-thinking schools are investing in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) programs. Like STEM, this approach helps children gain a hands-on education with the technology that will surround them for the rest of their lives, but it does so by using an arts and technology in tandem approach. The arts help inform technology. STEAM programs integrate the creativity and innovation fostered by the arts into a hard-sciences focused education.

On a daily basis, everyone in the creative field exists on the fine balance between tech and art. We use both sides of the brain, as it were. It’s this functional dichotomy of creative and technical that makes creative work thrive.

So why are the arts so important if our future is technology? Recent research offers some compelling statistics:

  • Students who have arts education inclusion score an average of 98 points higher on the SATs (math section included)
  • Arts education encourages interpretive, relational, and communication skills
  • 93% of successful STEM entrepreneurs in a recent study had an arts inclusive background, specifically music training (compared to 34% of the average population)
  • More and more employers and business leaders are looking for well-rounded candidates in the job market rather than hyper-tech-focused recent grads

Investing in the hard sciences without utilizing the spatial and theoretical applications that grow from an arts understanding is like leaving half of the tools on the table. Being an engineer is fantastic. But being an artistic engineer? That’s where all of the pieces click together.

Look at where capitalism meets innovation: the startup scene. Art schools produce more startup wunderkinds than tech schools or the Ivy League. These “unicorns”, entrepreneurs who create high-valued projects, are coming from schools that value creative thinking as well as teaching them to use (and create new) tools to make these ideas happen: art schools, design schools, small liberal arts colleges.

Again, Eames:

I have a strong feeling that in the secondary school the role of the Fine Arts Department, and the Industrial Arts Department, is not to produce painters or designers, but rather to act in the role of a conscience with discipline to counteract the general tendencies to specialize, point up, develop, and capitalize the relationships of the various disciplines, and to be the constant watchdog of quality at all levels.

Psychologically, the arts are what distinguish us as a species. They are the expression of our highest selves and a way to communicate when words fail. Art makes us human. Technology without humanity paints a bleak future. Our future needs STEAM education programs.

Our brains crave inspiration. If we don’t encourage creativity we rob children of the ability to problem solve. If we don’t instill an appreciation for art’s changing trends and styles, they don’t learn to challenge the status quo. If we don’t give children the chance to engage and create we aren’t teaching them to innovate.

Problem-solving, challenging the status quo, and innovation — all core values of STEM.

Arts inclusion education helps teach the next generation to improve the technology that’s in front of them. We can’t wait to see what the future looks like.

I’ll always champion getting kids to understand and appreciate the hardware and software that will grow along with them. The future is digital — new technologies are exciting! But we simply can’t accept that the next generation is being deprived of the creativity and communication experiences to be learned from an arts education.