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Dayna Del Val, The Arts Partnership, Published February 23 2014

Del Val: Where is the A in STEM? Fields suffer without art

Last week I got to share why the arts matter for 21st Century learning to West Fargo School’s Insourced professional development day.

I based my talk around the recent article in Scientific American by David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University. Skorton explains that to be effective we need a broader, humanistic approach to education for scientists starting at the elementary level and continuing throughout kids’ academic careers.

“It is through the study of art, music, literature, history and other humanities and social sciences that we gain a greater understanding of the human condition than biological or physical science alone can provide,” he wrote.

This got me thinking about which skills the arts really offer that people in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields seem so often to be lacking:

• Communication

Startups raise capital. Foundations grow endowments. Businesses sell shares. This is all done through communication.

The arts teach people how to talk and write about their work, how to have a dialogue, how to sell a product. What’s the real difference between a piece of pottery and a share of a company? They are both commodities, and it’s up to the maker to engage the larger audience with it.

• Collaboration

By working together, productions are ready for opening night, concerts get performed and multiple artists create a cohesive gallery show. When everybody’s talents are acknowledged and valued, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

This is true in business, industry, medicine, the tech industry, academia and beyond.

• Critical thinking

Artists are notorious problem solvers. There is no correct answer in art, so the artist has to decipher all that surrounds the problem and find a solution that works on multiple levels.

A piece of pottery has to hold its shape, stand up to the glazing and firing process, appeal to the masses, be both contemporary and timeless and represent the potter. That’s at least as complex as trying to decipher what is on the other end of the telescope or microscope.

• Confidence

We are becoming more and more adverse to risk-taking, but what is riskier than playing a character on stage, selling your acrylic paintings or publishing your memoir? The audience can choose to be critical in very public ways.

Every independent restaurateur, small business owner and developer knows that failure is a very real possibility. Yet the dream of success, of finding a cure, of solving that global issue far outweighs the potential downside to failure.

It is often in our failures that our greatest growth occurs. Failure is only bad if we don’t learn from it.

When value is only placed on the skill-set represented by STEM fields, many important qualities are overlooked. Yet many companies today are saying they have to send young engineers and other professionals to training in writing, communication and critical thinking.

If we placed higher value on the arts, these qualities would be embedded into students who would then take them to their chosen professions.

While pursuing my masters’ degrees in theater and English, I developed into a person who is a collaborator, creator/inventor, project manager, leader and follower, problem-solver and rule-follower and rule-breaker. I am also fearless to uncertainty, linear and non-linear, adaptable and tenacious. These skills are all that the world of science, technology, engineer and math say they want.

Research techniques, computer programs and protocols can be taught, but these skills, which are inherent to the arts, become embedded personal characteristics in those who study the fine and liberal arts and humanities.

There’s no question that STEM fields have value, but ultimately, until it includes a comprehensive curriculum that includes the arts and is “re-acronymed” to STEAM, these skills will remain elusive for many and the fields will suffer because of it.

Dayna Del Val, executive director of The Arts Partnership, writes a monthly column for Variety. For more information on the arts, go to http://theartspartnership.net.