Nov 2, 2009

How Engineering can save the Arts

I have always wanted to learn to draw. As an aspiring design engineer, it made sense that I should be able to draw what I would eventually make. However, through high school and college, I put my science, math and engineering courses first. When I was a senior in college, I finally had space in my schedule to take a drawing class. Oddly enough, I had to interview for it. Sadly, I didn't convince the Art department of the importance and relevance of art to my major and goals; I was denied enrollment.

The recent article in Psychology Today , "Can Women Be Creative Scientists? The Dangers of Testing for Creative Ability" was a bittersweet confirmation of my initial belief. Researchers Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein indicate that visual thinking skills, often developed by artistic endeavors, are better predictors of success in STEM than SAT scores. More importantly, these skills, far from being intrinsic, can, if taught through artistic training, improve performance in visualization tests and science and engineering courses. Since women tend to score lower than men on visualization tests, equal access to STEM may depend on "[ensuring] that our schools and colleges provide an adequate and appropriate education that will bring every student up to their full potential." By developing visual skills in all students, they argue, we may be able to develop more students who have the innovative abilities of Edison and Ford.

Now consider Art professors who inform me that students are coming into their classes without the basics of drawing, folding or middle school shop skills. Combine this inability with the desire to have more engineers: Eliminating artistic training from general education may have the unintended consequence of widening the divide between those who have been able to pay for music, drawing, or photography lessons and those who have not. We need to be sure that we don't chop off our legs as we reach for the stars. Recent stimulus funds may helped save engineering today. Engineering may have to save the arts tomorrow.

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