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Mendo Lake Family Life

Why It’s Smart to Use Art to Teach Science

By Christopher Emdin

Why is it that a student cannot memorize multiplication tables, but can memorize dozens of raps, rhymes, and songs? It has taken us far too long to recognize that there is a difference between rigorous knowledge and mere regurgitation. Memorization drills do not work. What does work are activities that engage students emotionally and connect to what they already know. This is where the A in STEAM sparkles. Teaching STEM concepts using the arts not only connects to students’ lives but also taps into their existing identities. And in doing so, it extends that identity to include a STEM identity.

The division of disciplines ends up hurting people. If we truly examine all the separate disciplines, they share many of the same skills. It is not that you are a math or history or English person; every one of those specialties uses critical thinking. Everybody needs to collaborate. Everybody needs to be creative. My biology advisor when I was an undergraduate told me, “If you want to be a biologist, you need to be an English major. You need to be a statistician. You need to be a historian.” She explained to me that I needed to embrace these different subjects to understand how “life,” the subject of biology, truly works. We try to teach certain skill sets to our students, but there are many ways to approach a subject or create the type of relevance that supports rigor. We need to be sure to include the arts as we think about student motivation and the ways that students may plug into an activity.

Several years ago, I attended an “Influencers Dinner” at Columbia. The guest list included noted scientists, businesspeople, politicians, and other community members. Over the course of the evening, we all had to guess what everyone else did, without giving away our own profession. As you can imagine, everybody missed the mark—by a lot. Then we had to share what we wanted to do with our lives. One of the attendees, Dr. Joachim Frank, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist, admitted that his dream is to be a fiction writer. Intrigued, I asked him to tell me more about his interest in fiction. His imagination and creativity, he said, have been developed through his fiction. By exploring literature, writing, and art, he has created a form of “peripheral vision”—an ability to look toward the edges and fringes—that informs his scientific research. When an experiment does not work or a hypothesis fails, he looks to the more humanistic pursuits in his life for inspiration. As he explained, the big, Nobel Prize–level breakthroughs happen because something unexpected influences his thinking.

We need to look at scientists as whole people who can tap into these nontraditional domains. Similarly, we need to step back and look at the humanity of the children in front of us. How do we honor the non-STEM attributes of young folks and use those as starting points for joining the STEM-STEAM world? This humanistic consideration is what will transfer to the next year, the next classroom, and to a future career. If we support young people as they examine, think critically, and form a human connection to the material, they are far more likely to remember it. We remember what we feel.

We need to teach from this STEAM-based point of view.  

Excerpted, with permission, from STEM, STEAM, Make, Dream: Reimagining the Culture of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics by Christopher Emdin, Ph.D.

Christopher Emdin, PhD, is the Robert A. Naslund Endowed Chair in Curriculum and Teaching and Professor of Education at the University of Southern California (USC), where he also serves as director of youth engagement and community partnerships at the USC Race and Equity Center. He previously served as director of the Science Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University, and alumni fellow at the Hiphop Archive and Hutchins Center at Harvard University. The creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., Emdin has previously been named Multicultural Educator of the Year by the National Association of Multicultural Educators, and has been honoroed as a STEM Access Champion of Change by the White House. He also served as a Minorities in Energy Ambassador for the US Department of Energy. He is the author of STEM, STEAM, Make, Dream (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Ratchetdemic (Beacon Press), and For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Ya’ll Too (Beacon Press).