Column: Schools need to add art to STEM curriculum

Robert Buchsbaum

Much has been made of the need to focus educational efforts in the area known as STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. Many educators and business leaders believe that America’s position in the global economy is tied to our ability to innovate in technology and related fields. For this and other excellent reasons, schools nationwide give more hours to math, computer science, and related subjects.

Certainly the U.S. needs to keep its technical edge, and to qualify for skilled positions that are plentiful in the 21st century, the worker of the future will need to be fluent in math, science, and technology as we move to fill shortages in exploding areas like data engineering.

But some STEM programs lack an important component — the integration of the arts into the educational curriculum. This is regrettable, particularly when there are many ways in which the arts can enrich a STEM curriculum. Industrial design, computer graphics, brainstorming, simple problem-solving — all can be fostered by exposure to the arts.

The movement known as STEAM — which incorporates the arts into the STEM acronym — adds a valuable dimension to the drive for continued American leadership in new and groundbreaking areas. For too long innovation has been coupled solely with technology. Yet creativity and the arts are also vital to unlocking ideas that have the power to change the world.

Apple founder Steve Jobs famously believed that superior technology must be designed with artistry, claiming this fusion between technology and the arts was part of Apple’s DNA. He even credited his calligraphy classes at Reed College for his esthetic sense, telling Stanford’s 2005 graduating class, “When we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac.”

Innovation in science, technology, engineering and math won’t come from merely pushing our students to study harder. Smart kids are not inspired to become innovators — and at-risk youth aren’t motivated to graduate from high school — simply by piling on more hours of science and math. The fundamentals are important, but engaging with the arts is a powerful way to inspire kids to learn and stimulate their curiosity.

In Chicago, the graduation rate among students at Marwen, the nonprofit arts group that offers free art instruction for Chicago youth, is more than 90 percent (with 94 percent of Marwen seniors accepted to college), compared to graduation rates in the 60th percentile for Chicago Public Schools at large. At a time when arts instruction in our public schools is diminishing, Marwen is bucking the trend — and that’s a move we should all watch.

Investing in the arts is good for the American economy because it helps more kids stay in school, earn a degree, and go to college. Cities all across the country need more organizations like this.

But engaging in the arts isn’t just a tactic for motivating kids who are at risk of dropping out of high school. Children exposed to arts are more likely to become inventors and develop businesses and patents, a University of Michigan study has shown. They are four times more likely to be recognized for outstanding academic achievement in school, according to Americans for the Arts.

Arts integration in K-12 education also shows promise for improved learning among special education students, a body of research being gathered by Edutopia shows.

There’s no doubt science and technology are foundational to building applied skills. But investing in the arts isn’t just a feel-good option to be done away with lightly. There’s a valuable place for the arts in driving innovation in all areas, fueling the economic and intellectual future of our country, and securing America’s place as a leader in the global economy. STEAM is the next generation of STEM.

Robert Buchsbaum is CEO of Blick Art Materials.