For the last decade I have repeatedly emphasized a correlation between the encouragement of creativity in childhood and professional, personal and economic success later in life. I have done so here on this blog, and previously as a think tank senior fellow and artist’s rights advocate. I have not been alone in this belief. I travel in a circle of creativity consultants and coaches, some of whom read this blog. But here in the town where I’ve built my career, Washington, D.C., I’m beginning to see signs that policymakers have also recognized this creativity connection. Helping to drive it is an understanding that producing a creative-thinking work force boosts our economy and job growth.
Last Thursday I was in the U.S. Capitol for the public launch of a new caucus, i.e., a collection of U.S. senators and House members from both parties who focus on a common cause. It is called the STEAM Caucus. For years the U.S. government has promoted so-called STEM education–science, technology, engineering and math. President Obama called for more STEM education in his recent State of the Union address. The STEAM caucus adds an “A”–for “arts”–to the acronym.
The description of the event, organized by STEAM Caucus Co-Chairs Reps. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) and Aaron Schock (R-IL), says it all: “A briefing on changing the vocabulary of education to include both art and science–and their intersections–to prepare our next generation of innovators to lead the 21st-century economy.”
“In the past several years, there has been a great deal of talk about STEM” education, Bonamici and Schock wrote their fellow members of Congress in a “Dear Colleague” letter. “We need to cultivate our future workforce in these fields in order to maintain and increase U.S. global competitiveness. But what policymakers often do not acknowledge, or do not know, is the importance of arts and design to STEM.”
There were certainly a lot of people on hand at the U.S. Capitol event who understood the importance. Rep. Bonamici said they had to move to a bigger room to meet demand. By my count there were easily 300 people present, with many having to stand along the walls. They heard from an impressive array of speakers on the subject, including Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) President John Maeda, New York Hall of Science Director Eric Siegel, National Endowment for the Arts Senior Advisor Bill O’Brien, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Education Coordinator Joyce Ward.
Just listen to some of the statistics presented at the event, based on a survey of 1,000 college-educated working professionals. 1) 71% said creative thinking should be taught as a course, like math and science. 2) 82% wish they had more exposure to creative thinking as students. 3) 91% said there is more to success in school than focusing on course material. 4) 85% said creative thinking is critical for problem solving in their career. 5) 78% wish they had more creative ability.
The survey demonstrated these professionals maintain STEM studies are in fact “creative subjects,” with 59% saying that of math and 69% saying that of science. (Innovation specialists would say that every one of the four STEM emphases in fact demands creative thinking to fully excel.) Those same survey subjects, however, had 65% saying drama is creative, and 76% for music and 79% for art. (Again, those of us who have focused our studies on artists would say that should be 100%–it is why I refer to artists as “creatives.”)
What is telling in those percentages is that those polled recognized that STEM subjects invite creative thinking, but also that art programs encourage it even more. So if we want more creative thinking among STEM students, why hope it will only come from their STEM teachers? Why not assume the exposure to creative processes they receive in their A (for art) classes will assist them in their STEM classes?
That is what the STEAM Caucus assumes, as do the panelists at last week’s event. I was particularly struck by RISD President John Maeda. He earned his PhD in Design from Tsukiba University’s Institute of Art and Design in Japan, but began his educational career studying software engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Maeda brings both E and A higher-education experience to the discussion. At the event, he said we are at a critical point in the understanding of creative thinking, and is convinced that STEM and art are converging in ways that will change the world. I welcomed his wisdom, despite the fact that he runs an institution that is a rival of the art college my daughter will be attending this fall.
My daughter is a solid A student, as in Art; in fact, this evening I’ll be attending an awards ceremony at a local college, where she’ll be receiving a Gold Award for a collection of her photography. But she was not an “A” student in science and mathematics. Perhaps, if the curriculum of those classes had allowed her to see the role creative thinking played in those subjects, she would have been more engaged. Perhaps she would not be attending art school this fall, but rather MIT. I don’t believe she has any regrets about the way her K-12 education has played out, and so I don’t either. But her experience suggests a challenge greater than simply encouraging the retention and even expansion of art programs in our elementary and secondary schools. It suggests a need to rethink the way STEM courses are taught. That is not a small undertaking.
But no efforts worth pursuing in education are small undertakings. We can take steps in our local schools, encouraging educators to promote creative thinking across all disciplines. We can take steps in our communities, through volunteer work focused on providing creative outlets for children. And we can take steps at home, to engage in creative activities with our children and teach them about successful products of STEAM education such as Dr. Maeda. It is a collective effort, as all worthwhile causes are. I’ve been doing my part, and will continue to do so. If you agree with this premise, you can help as well.