The Importance of Early and Persistent Arts and Crafts Education for Future Scientists and Engineers

Robert Root-Bernstein*, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology
Rex LaMore, Ph.D., Director Center for Community and Economic Development
James Lawton, MFA, Professor and Studio Artist, College of Arts & Letters
John Schweitzer, Ph.D., Professor, Center for Community and Economic Development
Michele Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., Adjunct Faculty, College of Arts and Letters
Eileen Roraback, Ph.D., College of Arts and Letters
Amber Peruski, MSU Honors College
Megan VanDyke , MSU Honors College
Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, USA 48824

K-12 curricula at in most school systems focus on mathematical and verbal skills, but the ability to succeed in science and engineering requires a broader range of skills that include observation, visualization, dimensional thinking, modeling, manual dexterity, familiarity with tools, transforming data into visual or graphical forms, converting theories into mechanical procedures, and even understanding data and experiments kinesthetically (Wilson, 1972; Ferguson, 1977; Ferguson, 1992; Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 1999; Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 2005; Root-Bernstein, et al. 2008;). All of these skills can be learned through arts and crafts experiences (e.g., Hindle, 1981; Ferguson, 1992; Deno, 1995; Sorby and Bartmanns, 1996; Alias, et al., 2002; Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 2005; Root-Bernstein, et al., 2008; Sorby, 2009;). As a result, we have found through a series of studies of scientists and engineers that significant arts and crafts experience is highly correlated with success in science and engineering as measured by outcomes such as major prizes and honors, patents, or the founding of new high tech companies (Root-Bernstein, et al., 1995; Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein, 2004; Root-Bernstein, et al., 2008; Lamore, et al., 2010; Root-Bernstein, et al., in press). One of the most notable results of our ongoing studies is that no particular art or craft confers any particular advantage over any other: dance, music, drama, painting, sculpting, printmaking, photography, making and composing music, metal- and woodwork are all correlated with increased probability of success. The operant factor is not the type of art or craft, but early introduction to arts and crafts in elementary and middle school years followed by persistent practice of that art or craft into adulthood. We also found that while exposure to arts and crafts can occur in a school setting, formal education is not a requirement for the observed correlation to success: arts and crafts classes in school were often supplemented or replaced by private lessons, informal mentoring at home or in community centers, or even by self-teaching. Again, the key element was not how an art or craft was learned, but the persistence with which it was pursued.

Given that most states within the United States, and most countries around the world, marginalize arts and crafts education to the extent that many students get no more than an hour of such education per week, and most are not introduced to more than one or two arts or crafts during their entire schooling, our findings have clear policy implications for a wide range of parties (Lamore, et al., 2010). Students interested in pursuing a science or engineering career must recognized that their formal K-12 schooling is unlikely to prepare them adequately in the range of skills they will need to reach the top of their field: they and their parents will need to supplement the standard K-12 curriculum. Educators and those setting educational policy must recognize that there is a robust literature linking success in science and engineering to skills such as observing, visualization, and modeling that are developed by arts and crafts training: arts and crafts are not, therefore dispensable frills that can be eliminated from curricula whenever budgets need to be cut, but essential elements of science and engineering education. Finally, legislators need to understand the practical value that lies in the skills taught through arts and crafts so that they are willing to provide robust funding not only for formal K-12 arts and crafts curricula, but also for community centers, after-school programs associated with arts and crafts centers, museum- and concert hall-based educational programs, and other forms of informal arts and crafts education. The fact is that Innovators in science and engineering are artists and craftsmen as well, and there are practical reasons that this is so. Only when we understand the many ways in which arts and crafts make possible innovation in sciences and engineering will we be able to develop the full potential of our students.


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