Could The Arts Put The Steam Into STEM?

The Common Core has emphasized the practical nature of education, and rightly so in many cases.

As a result of its emphasis on practical education, for example, students are reading more non-fiction now in the elementary grades.  This is a good thing, as reading non-fiction requires certain skills not required when reading fiction.  The result is a more balanced curriculum.  The standards also support the new commitment to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).  I am sure that many teachers think that they now have to sacrifice the Arts to satisfy our country’s need for an infusion of young people who are practical minded, instead of emotive and artistic.

Bob Dylan has been replaced by Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  I believe that move would be a big mistake.  What we need in education today is a balanced approach that speaks to the human propensity to be curious about everything, not just proficient in certain subjects.

Music and Math
I believe my son first learned about fractions when he started studying the flute.  Half notes, quarter notes, and whole notes daunted him at first.  Now, because he has studied music and understands the concept musically, and because he has studied fractions and understands them mathematically, he plays better than ever.  He also happens to love math.  Surely, he is not the only child to discover the wonders of math within the context of music.

Art and Math


A good example of an artist who has had profound influence on math and science is M.C. Escher.  His drawings, which are beautiful in their own right, were inspired by the mathematical concept of infinity and Euclidian geometry, among other things (M.C. Escher – EscherMath, 2011).  He has inspired many mathematicians in turn.  He brings the numbers and shapes into focus, leaving those who study his works with images that can guide their practical explorations throughout their lifespan.  Think of it as the ultimate form of chunking information, the ultimate pictorial mnemonic.  That is how I think of it.

Science and Literature
Could scientists learn a thing or two from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?  According to Cantor (2004), they could.  They would especially learn about the danger of believing they can change the nature of nature, and the process of creation.  He wrote the following.

Shelley identifies the purely technical nature of scientific thinking as its chief defect. For Frankenstein creation is simply a matter of technique. He has the parts and his only concern is how to assemble them quickly into a whole. He does not think about the nature of the whole he is creating — how the way it is being brought into being will affect the character of that whole. The result of Frankenstein’s lack of foresight and imagination is to bring tragedy on his creature and ultimately on himself. [emphasis added]

In my opinion, Dr. Frankenstein’s character should give scientists pause.  They should think about the purpose of their work and how they are pursuing their goals.  In other words, thinking “I do it because I can,” does not necessarily mean you should.  Art, therefore, can send powerful messages to those who are more practical minded, if they are inclined to listen.

Before you think that I am anti-practical-minded, I must tell you that the artistic have their own issues.  Art (including art, music, literature, etc.) is the examination and expression of the possible and the impossible.  It is fluid, and those who practice it often wander through many iterations of their work, experiencing the joy of fascination rather than having a specific goal in mind, or a hypothesis to test.  Science, math, and technology can ground art in realistic expectations, and often does.

Science and Art
One artist who was affected by his scientific explorations was the great Leonardo da Vinci.  Because of his interest in the human body, for example, his talent was enhanced by his detailed examinations and observations.  Waggoner (1996) wrote:

It may seem unusual to include Leonardo da Vinci in a list of paleontologists and evolutionary biologists. Leonardo was and is best known as an artist, the creator of such masterpieces as the Mona Lisa, Madonna of the Rocks, and The Last Supper. Yet Leonardo was far more than a great artist: he had one of the best scientific minds of his time. He made painstaking observations and carried out research in fields ranging from architecture and civil engineering to astronomy to anatomy and zoology to geography, geology and paleontology.

His art was grounded in these explorations, enhanced by them, and forever changed his approach.  A scientist reviewing his artistic work could find insights through metaphor, allusion, and pure observation.  To ignore the importance of da Vinci’s scientific work would be a great oversight; to ignore his artistic contributions to culture and thought would be a great oversight as well.

Math and Poetry
Those who remember reading Shakespearean and Petrarchan sonnets in high school and college will surely remember iambic pentameter and the rigid form of the sonnet.  For some, there is a strong correlation between math and poetry.  Steve Jones (2010) wrote,

Poetry, in other words, is mathematics. It is close to a particular branch of the subject known as combinatorics, the study of permutations – of how one can arrange particular groups of objects, numbers or letters according to stated laws. As early as 200 BC, writers on Sanskrit poetry asked how many ways it is possible to arrange various sets of long and short syllables, the building blocks of Sanskrit verse. A syllable is short, with one beat, or long, with two. In how many ways can a metre of four syllables be constructed? Four shorts or four longs have just one pattern for each, while for three shorts and a long, or three longs and a short, there are four (SSSL, SSLS, SLSS, and LSSS, for example). For two of each kind of syllable, there are six possibilities. Do the sum for metres of one, two, three, four and more and a mathematical pattern emerges. It is Pascal’s Triangle, the pyramid of numbers in which the series in the next line is given by adding together adjacent pairs in the line above to generate 1, 1 1, 1 2 1, 1 3 3 1, 1 4 6 4 1, and so on.

Those who study the Kabbalah and Gematria can also attest to the beautiful relationship between letters and numbers.  Ancient texts are analyzed numerically in Gematria, to “insight into interrelation of different concepts and exploring the interrelationship between words and ideas” (Gal Einai Institute, 2010).


Smith (2012) wrote the following about the great philosopher, Aristotle.

[Along] with many others in his time, he placed a strong emphasis on all round and ‘balanced’ development. Play, physical training, music, debate, and the study of science and philosophy were to all have their place in the forming of body, mind and soul. Like Plato before him, he saw such learning happening through life – although with different emphases at different ages.

My grandmother used to tell me, “Everything in moderation, Heather.”  She lived her life that way, not sacrificing anything, but choosing when and where to experience it.  My personal opinion is that human beings need – perhaps even crave – balanced development.  We teachers need to develop more cross-curricular activities that combine the arts with STEM, not sacrifice the study of art, music, and literature for an emphasis on STEM and non-fiction.

We need to move in the direction of subject areas that are not siloed, as they have been for many years, but collaborative.

Perhaps I am preaching to the choir.

The title of this post asks a question: “Could the Arts put the steam into STEM?”  I think you know my answer, which is a resounding “YES!”


Cantor, P. (2004). The Scientist and the poet. The New Atlantis, (4), 75–85.

Gal Einai Institute. (2011). Introduction to Gematria – Hebrew Numerology. Retrieved October 23, 2012, from

Jones, S. (2010, October 5). National Poetry Day: unlock the mathematical secrets of verse. Retrieved from

M.C. Escher – EscherMath. (2011, September 24).Math and the art of MC Escher. Retrieved October 22, 2012, from

Smith, M. (2012, May 29). Aristotle and informal education. the encyclopaedia of informal education. Retrieved October 19, 2012, from

Waggoner, B. (1996, January). Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo da Vinci. Retrieved October 16, 2012, from

Image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks

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