The educational strategy that’s turning students into unimaginative robots

All STEM and no arts makes for dull adults.
All STEM and no arts makes for dull adults.
Image: AP Photo/Mary Esch
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Science and math dominate the contemporary educational landscape in the United States. Almost everyone agrees that the country needs to shape workers with the skills to combat global problems like climate change, cancer and ailing infrastructures. There’s just one problem: a single-minded emphasis on STEM risks turning our young people into robots.

Our intense focus on science, engineering, technology and math may have forced these subjects into a vacuum rather than tying them together with the humanities, according to Jamie Gillooly, a biology professor at the University of Florida. That comes at a cost to students’ creativity and critical thinking—qualities that are just as important in the laboratory as they are in an art studio.

“This idea that STEM is the only way is backwards,” he tells Quartz. “We produce a bunch of droids that way. Students get very little chance to write or express themselves. Everything we do is now knowledge-based.”

Gillooly is one of hundreds of educators trying to reintroduce arts and humanities to students pursuing STEM-based fields at US colleges and universities. In addition to his research and biology courses, Gillooly also teaches a humanities-based course that focuses on cultures across the globe and connects disciplines like art, dance, literature and social studies to technology and science.

The course, titled “What Is the Good Life,” is now required for all incoming UF students—including those in STEM. Students from all majors read works like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, take part in social justice exercises, attend museum exhibits and theater performances and even practice yoga.

Gillooly also teaches a course called “Thinking in Art and Science,” specifically designed to tie art and science together. The course focuses on using scientific knowledge to create art and applying artistic processes such as drawing to scientific research, all in an attempt to round out our future scientists.

“They’re so used to order and structure, and life isn’t like that,” Gillooly tells Quartz. “We’ve taken this notion of objectivity to the extreme.”

Conversely, Gillooly thinks science is an important complement to any humanities education. “Humanities are good because they make students think, but that’s not enough,” he says. “We need the humanities to teach science and to communicate science.”

While the US has historically been a leader in STEM areas, only 16% of American high school seniors are proficient in math and interested in a STEM career, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The US now stands at 29th in mathematics and 22nd in science among industrialized nations, according to The National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, the US projects a heightened need for people specializing in integrated sciences over the next decade. The number of jobs available in biomedical engineering, for example, are projected to increase by 62% between 2010 and 2020, according to the Department.

Yet when STEM students are discouraged from exploring the arts and creative pursuits, they’re unable to see the beauty in the work they do and lose interest in their fields, according to Kevin Knudson, a mathematician and professor at the University of Florida and the former chair of their Creativity on Campus Committee.

“People think of math as crunching numbers. Mathematicians don’t use numbers. We look for patterns, and that takes creative thinking,” Knudson tells Quartz.

Knudson says the best class he ever taught was last semester’s “Mathematics in Literature.” He partnered with a professor in the language department at UF, and together they led the class through readings like Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Library of Babel.”

“Then we argued about hexagons for an hour,” Knudson says. “The dynamic works best when you’ve got two professors from different colleges teaching a small number of kids at a time. That’s when they really get it.”

Knudson says the STEM push coming from the government has spurred schools to focus on efficient training. But that efficiency has its price—such as putting an entire field of liberal arts on the brink of extinction.

“Everything has been made into a formula,” Knudson says, “but there is no formula for creativity.”

In fact, a 2011 study by a researcher at the College of William & Mary found that creativity scores—as measured by a 90-minute series of creativity tasks known as the Torrance test—are falling in the US, even as IQs continue to rise. Dr. Kyung Hee Kim, an associate professor of innovation and creativity at William & Mary, analyzed 300,000 creativity scores of children and adults, collected between 1968 and 2008. She found that creativity scores had been rising along with IQ scores until 1990. But they have been dropping steadily through 2008, particularly in the elementary-school years of education.

There is no conclusive evidence pointing to a particular cause for the decline. But some speculate that schools’ failure to develop children’s creativity could be to blame. Another potential culprit: hours of screen time, during which kids have adventures mapped out for them rather than come up with activities on their own.

The biggest decline has been seen in students’ knack for “creative elaboration,” according to Kim’s research. This measure assesses people’s ability to take an idea and find novel ways to expand upon and interpret it—a skill that’s badly needed for success in STEM.

Fortunately, students such as Van Truong, a 19-year-old undergraduate at the University of Florida, are taking an interest in infusing creativity into their work. Truong went viral last year for writing her biology notes on a white board in the form of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. She tells Quartz that she made the composition on a whim, after having failed to understand the concepts by writing them out the more traditional way. Not only did she manage to create something that connected with others, she said her grade was also 20% higher than usual.

“We need associative thinking, so that we draw upon familiarity and make connections that are memorable all while breaking through new ground,” Truong tells Quartz.

Some institutions are trying to better integrate scientific thinking and the humanities by moving from STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). The movement, spearheaded by the Rhode Island School of Design, aims to place art and design at the center of STEM-based curricula.

To that end, Knudson recommends what he calls “true partnership classes, with two faculty of different colleges teaching 20 to 30 students for three hours.” The problem, he says, is that the funding for such initiatives simply isn’t available yet. Professors wishing to take on such endeavors must do so on top of their regular duties. Putting in that kind of time could get in the way of taking care of their already-staggering responsibilities.

Still, some universities are trying to change the system so that it behooves faculty to teach across disciplines. UF is adding two to three more interdisciplinary course requirements—in social sciences, natural sciences and perhaps in education—based on the success of its integrated humanities course.

Other universities, including Stevens Institute of Technology, also require all freshmen to take a core humanities class. Many more lay out “core general education requirements” to ensure that all students get exposure to a range of disciplines. Meanwhile, schools like Harvard don’t have a specific cross-curricula agenda in place, but have taken pains to facilitate cross-registration amid different departments.

All this suggests that a growing number of educators are committed to helping students learn to meld studies in arts and STEM together—just as the subjects are intertwined in life. It’s only when the US has successfully integrated the disciplines that the country will be able to shoot back to the top of STEM fields.

“Discoveries don’t come because you do everything right,” Truong tells Quartz. “You need to be open to the possibilities in a way that art fosters.”