I’m a scientist, so I’m sensitive about my data: The creativity within STEM


“The Neuron”.  Artwork by Mental Traffic

Written By Dr. Erika E. Alexander

Sometimes I think about the moment I decided studying science was for me. I was a freshman in college. It wasn’t because I particularly liked math or analyzing data, or being cooped up in a science lab all day/night (because that’s what scientists were to me, then). At the time I was a Psychology major, because I had done well in high school classes and found it mildly interesting. I was in the honors program, and most of my friends just so happened to be high-achieving Biology majors. They were already taking major classes, including BIO 101. One day, in between doing my homework, I was flipping through my friend’s textbook. I became amazed at what I was reading. The images I saw of life and all of its creatures, the complex problems, and elegant solutions inspired in me such a sense of wonder. I wanted more. I wanted to create. So I began down a path which has led me, ironically, in a full circle (more on that in another post).

As I continued my pursuit of scientific exploration in graduate school, I became aware of certain patterns (and I’ve always loved patterns) in the people around me. I found that many of my brilliant researcher friends also had creative side. I know people who have published in Nature and PNAS, who take photos that would make you weep. I’ve been to physics conferences where one of the featured events was a musical jam session by my fellow scientists. I know a brilliant computer programmer that plays a mean trumpet. I’ve attended art shows with works showcasing brilliantly colorful confocal imaging of cells and cellular organization, close up images of spider eyes and bird wings, and hand drawn illustrations of a neuron.

I also love to create beautiful things. From coasters/home scents, to all natural beauty products, to cooking and baking for loved ones, to imaging hair cells on the confocal. If I am creating, I’m happy. I’ve always been inspired by images, and photography is also a secret love of mine, one that I hope to learn more about in the near future. I find many things in the world inspiring, including my science and the images it produces. I suspect many of my friends feel the same way. I have friends who are talented dancers, sculptors and interior designers, who put on a lab coat and gloves at work everyday. My friends paint, sing, write poetry and blogs, and can tell you exactly what elements and compounds are contained within a sample just by looking at spikes on a computer screen.  They can record individual neurons as they communicate with other cells, and grow plants that glow in the dark. Artists.

I say all of this, because I wonder if this pattern of great science and great creativity is connected. Nathan Alexander talked about the policy push towards adding an A for Art into the STEM acronym (to create STEAM) to appeal to a more diverse group of students. Separation of science and art is taught to us early. When I was in elementary school, the same teacher who taught us History, English, and Math, also taught Science in the same room. Meanwhile, an entirely different teacher taught Art in a different classroom, in a different part of the building. There were no connections to STEM subjects, or suggestions that a career in art is something that those who like science should pursue.

Society views artists as free, wild, and complicated, while scientists are analytical, data-driven, and socially awkward. Artists create art and poetry and scientists use lasers and build killer robots. At first glance, they could not be farther apart on the spectrum of humanity. But, then why are so many creatives drawn towards STEM careers? Is it just that scientific research is so stressful, with all of it’s pitfalls, politics, and potential failures, that a creative outlet is a distraction required to survive?

Or, is science in its essential form creativity? Does it not require skill and a sometimes slavish dedication to craft? Can creative inspiration by other artists or muses be likened to the genesis of new experimental ideas and paradigms after talking with fellow scientists about their research? Does attention to detail and seemingly unrelated factors play an important role in both the evolution of art and science? Are a sculptor and an engineer simply creating different pieces of art? Can there be true artistic beauty in a high-resolution image of the cellular organization of auditory sensory cells?

I got into science because I saw it as a creative endeavor, a chance to carve out my path and to use my skills to create new understanding of the world around me. In my mind, art, is a way of communicating about life, sharing with the world all of its wonders and it’s dark, scary places. To me, the two subjects aren’t so very different. So maybe it’s time for a more nuanced view of both professions. Maybe art and science can share the same room after all.

What do you think? Are there better ways to incorporate science into art classes and vice versa?  Should artistic ability be encouraged/developed in the budding scientist?

From STEM to STEAM: Diversity and the integration of the Arts into STEM


By: Nathan N. Alexander

Historically, STEM has been used in the United States as an acronym to situate and link the disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. In original form, the term was generated as a means to situate education policies and as a tool for curricular innovation and national competitiveness, among other items. Similar terms, such as MINT, which stands for ‘Mathematics, Information Sciences, Natural Sciences, and Technology’, have not experienced the success, in terms of usage, of the STEM acronym and thus are not commonplace in discussions on education. More recently, however, the term STEAM has become more readily apparent in education policy literature. In general, STEAM seeks to transform education policy and encourage the integration of the arts and design into K-20 education, primarily as a means to drive innovation. The STEAM movement seeks to broaden the conception of the STEM fields, which have been traditionally situated as hard and unreachable subjects for some youth. One implication of this movement is an assured increase in situating diversity in the now STEM fields, but only in instances where integration and implementation are well thought out in advance.

The public education agenda in the United States has positioned STEM as a centerpiece in debates about important and requisite skills for national competitiveness. More broadly, institutions such as the National Science Foundation have presented guidelines on what constitutes as STEM field, which have contributed to more discipline specific ways of thinking and less multidisciplinary and integrative frames. As a result, and in K-12 education, these guidelines have been situated, separated, and couched in terms like college readiness and 21st century learning that lacks a holistic perspective on student learning. For example, in American society one is thought of as an “arts” person or a “science” person; it is rare that these two exists or are fully embraced all at once. Much of this way of thinking is the result of a political ideology and government agenda set to maintain competitiveness versus generate a healthy and holistically educated youth. It is no surprise, then, that historically STEM has its roots in debates about the number of qualified candidates for high-tech jobs. Less surprising is that these debates existed with a specific regard to immigration. Namely, the question, “How do we get the best workers here in the U.S?” In light of the fight for national competitiveness, a focus on specific communities and subsequent issues of diversity in STEM increased.

Low expectations and high barriers for STEM have historically made entry into these fields difficult, especially for marginalized and underrepresented students of color, as Dr. Chloe Poston has previously discussed. In K-12 education, STEAM has been situated more broadly as a framework for education, as opposed to a curriculum or curricular tool. Georgette Yakman, one founder in the STEAM Education movement describes the framework as one that allows representation of the whole world. Previous posts here at The Poston Collective have discussed the need for more integration across disciplines. For example, Dr. Stacy-Ann Allen Ramdial noted how STEM and Social Science go Hand in Hand. Elsewhere, significant debates exist around the emphasis on STEM. The majority of these debates focus on whether STEM has provided proper and substantive content to teaching and learning in K-20 contexts. Beyond how it is written, additional debates arose from how STEM is interpreted. Further questions about rigidity and inclusiveness continue.

Is STEAM one potential puzzle piece to reducing persistent issues of diversity?

In my opinion, good teaching already accounts for STEAM. However, the STEAM community formalizes the process and takes on Science and Technology by interpreting Engineering through the usage of the Arts, which are all based in Mathematics. I use this post as a call to urge us all to better understand the STEAM movement in detail and to identify the nuances that will be presented in the months and years to come. While innovation and growth of this sort provide fair opportunity to engage new ways of doing, it is too often that new issues of diversity and access follow. STEAM will only provide the contexts to “paint” a new picture of diversity given well-planned and situated integration that will include all students and not only those with access to, for example, more information and resources. Further, unlike its STEM counterpart, this new movement should not be focused solely on increasing national competitiveness but instead as one potential way to increase diversity and justice for communities that have been traditionally left out of the STEM fields.

Full STEAM ahead!