ON TOPIC Art As a Means to Scientific Discovery: The Work of Harvey Seifter and the Art of Science Learning
All images courtesy of The Art of Science Learning.
By Joe Ferguson Contributor
Every science student dreams of becoming a great scientist. During a tedious chemistry lecture, our wandering minds fill with visions of amazing discoveries, great inventions, solutions to humanity’s ills. The fantasy follows an inevitable chain of events—peer recognition, public fame, and then, of course, the Nobel. Time passes, however,and our academic pursuits seem at odds with these lofty fantasies. Instead of filled with epiphanies and breakthroughs, we find our college years mired in late nights of caffeine- fueled memorization and days of liturgical laboratory procedures. Professional life fares no better.
After the gauntlet that is graduate school, we scramble furiously toward gainful employment. We are confronted with fewer options than we anticipated—the long slog to institutional tenure, or the soul–deadening trudge of commercial science. Discovery and innovation become like childhood promises of Santa or the Easter Bunny. The promise of a stimulating, scholarly life grows distant, as our minds slip slowly into the muck of professionalism. The formula for this intellectual swamp is a familiar one: mix an uneventful high–school career with above average SAT scores. Transfer to appropriately–sized undergraduate program, and heat until thoroughly dissolved. Filter the reaction mixture and evaluate results with the GRE or MCAT. Add two to four years of professional expectation catalyst and heat vigorously. Crystallize with 50 hours a week of academic or commercial work until product is set and rigid.
The crux of the problem lies in a central tenet of science education methodology: equip students with base knowledge, and out of this they will grow ideas to confront and solve future quandaries. Students toil for years with a carrot–stick approach, earning high marks for memorizing tomes of information, and becoming unthinkingly proficient with technical lab work.
Professional scientific work requires vast amounts of knowledge and skill, but the belief that innovation will miraculously arise out of an academic career of memorization and reproduction is flawed. Creativity is a cognitive skill that, like any other skill, requires development, enhancement, and maintenance. Survey classes in the humanities fail to promote creativity because assessment methods are still based on memorization, and creativity–based classes don’t work because they are aimed at artistic—not scientific—outcomes. What is needed is an approach that provokes the creative urge in science students and scientists.
The hero of one such approach is Harvey Seifter, founder of the Art of Science Learning. His organization is funded by two National Science Foundation grants, and is built on more than 15 years of work. He firmly believes the same skills, processes, and behaviors involved in the arts are critical to science, and that using the arts to practice those skills has positive benefits for both learners and STEM practitioners. His organization provides “extraordinarily hands–on, sleeves–rolled–up experiences” that bring together people from remarkably different perspectives and backgrounds—scientists, academics, corporate leaders, and policy makers—who share an interest in the learning that happens at the intersection of art and science, and the impact that learning has on innovation. This seemingly disparate group of individuals works in incubators that use arts–based learning and processes to confront STEM–based civic concerns such as water resources, urban nutrition, and transportation alternatives.
The work of the Art of Science Learning spans the breadth of education and reaches deeply into professional life. To better understand this unique approach, we interviewed Mr. Seifter.
Joe Ferguson: What inspired you to research the use of arts–based learning in the sciences? Harvey Seifter: My work started in 1997, when, as Executive Director of Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, I developed ways to use the orchestra’s conductor–less process of high performance ensemble teamwork as a learning resource for universities and corporate leaders. Over the next decade—in partnership with Americans for the Arts—I helped establish arts–based learning as a defined and recognized field of educational practice. These experiences convinced me of the hunger for new resources to foster creativity, collaboration, innovation, and engaged learning across society, and gave me a grow- ing awareness of the potential of the arts to advance vital learning objectives in many domains. During these years, I brought arts–based learning to a number of science and technology companies and STEM learning centers. These experiences taught me the vital importance of strengthening the creative and innovative capacities of America’s STEM workforce.
JF: Was there much evidence to support the use of arts– based learning in science education? HS: At that time, there was very little evidence of a cause–and–effect relationship between arts–based learning and creativity, collaboration, cognition, innovation, or academic performance. That was a huge problem and by far the greatest barrier to widespread adoption of arts–based learning as an educational strategy.
As I set out to see how we might develop the proof we needed, I quickly learned two things—this would be a very difficult task to accomplish, and the artists, educators, and businesses we were working with at the time lacked the necessary expertise, resources, or focus. I concluded that the solution might lie in an engagement with science—a field where fundamental respect for the value of evidence is at its core. I believed that bringing arts–based learning to STEM settings would focus our work in a domain where we’d already learned we could have impact, and collaborating with scientists could help address our need for expertise.
In 2007, I led an arts–based learning symposium at the National Science Foundation, convened by their Informal Science Education program and in collaboration with art/ scientist Todd Siler and choreographer Liz Lerman. This project—which marked the start of my 10–year collaboration with the NSF—led me to a new strategy: we would develop a systematic and effective way to integrate arts– based learning into STEM learning and practice, apply what we developed to STEM learning challenges, and carefully measure the outcomes.
JF: Do traditional forms of education depress creative thinking? HS: A striking pattern emerged from our research related to the creative thinking of high school STEM learners. For 12 of the 16 creative thinking skill variables we mea- sured on a pre/post basis, students who experienced the arts–based approach STEM innovation training had significantly better outcomes than students who experienced the traditional approach. The differences—many of which were quite large—were found across a wide range of skills related to divergent, convergent, and critical thinking. Three skills showed no difference between treatment and control, and one showed marginally better outcomes within the control groups.
Looking closely at the data, we noticed that in seven of the skills, the difference resulted from improved performance of the students experiencing arts–based learning, while the students experiencing traditional approaches to STEM learning showed no change. In five of the skills, however, there were no differences between pre– and post–test measures for the treatment group, but the students who were in the control group scored significantly lower on the post–test compared to the pre–test.
These results strongly suggest that traditional STEM pedagogy may depress some aspects of adolescent creative thinking, and that even a modest amount of arts–based learning may help overcome this negative outcome.
JF: What exactly is arts–based learning, and why is it important in 21st century science education? HS: Arts–based learning is the instrumental use of artistic skills, processes, and experiences as educational tools to foster learning in non–artistic disciplines and domains. With the increasing ubiquity of computational power, massive knowledge bases, and the growing sophistication of machine intelligence, the already well–established role played by creativity, collaboration, communication, and innovation in the 21st century STEM workforce will only grow more important. Although the absorption of discipline–specific bodies of knowledge will remain central to the STEM enterprise, creativity, collaboration, and communication will emerge as the foundational elements of successful STEM learning, and innovation will continue to be—along with knowledge creation—one of the prime value–generators of STEM practice. Our studies demonstrate that arts–based learning can improve outcomes in each of these domains.
JF: And this has business applications as well? HS: Yes, companies use arts–based learning to foster creative thinking, promote the development of new leadership models, and strengthen employee skills in critical areas such as collaboration, conflict resolution, change management, presentation/public performance, and intercultural communication. More than 400 of the Fortune 500 organizations have used arts–based learning. The range of art forms they use and the ways they use them are remarkable, from industrial manufacturers who hire poets and sculptors to encourage employees to engage and express their creativity through their work, to boards of directors that study the inner workings of jazz ensembles to improve their own high performance teamwork. Some law firms retain theater artists as coaches to strengthen courtroom presentational skills. There are even technology companies that work with suminigashi—Japanese water painting—to better understand innovation in chaotic and complex environments.
JF: How can arts–based learning address the disconnect between innovation skills and skill levels in employees— i.e. the Innovation Gap? HS: In 2016, we published research findings providing—for the first time—clear evidence of a strong causal relationship between arts–based learning and improved creativity skills and innovation outcomes in adolescents, as well as between arts–based learning and increased collaborative behavior in adults. These are precisely the impacts needed to close the Innovation Gap.
We found that high school groups using arts–based learning showed a large number of statistically significant increases in creative and critical thinking skills from pre– to post–test, while control groups showed no such increases. We were able to demonstrate that arts–based learning led to stronger STEM innovation outcomes in adolescents. Expert panelists rated the STEM innovations created by the high school teams using arts–based learning significantly higher in terms of insight, clarity, problem solving, and impact than those of the high school control teams. The effects were strikingly large, with the arts– based teams outperforming the control teams by as much as two points on a five–point scale.
The benefits of arts–based learning are not limited to adolescents. We found that STEM professionals using arts–based learning showed significant increases in sharing leadership, emotionally intelligent behavior, empathic listening, mutual respect, trust, active following, and transparency. Control groups only showed an increase in emotionally intelligent behavior, and in that behavior, the arts–based groups outperformed the control groups by a statistically significant margin.
JF: One of the things that strikes me as unique in your approach is an emphasis on evidence. Why is that so important? HS: I created the Art of Science Learning in 2008 to explore—in a systematic way—the impact of the arts on STEM learning, practice, and workforce development. During the years I served as founding director of Americans for the Arts’ Creativity Connection (2004–2008), I became increasingly aware of a disconnect. There were clearly many ways in which the arts were being—and could be—used to spark creativity in STEM education, public engagement with science, and the development of an innovative and collaborative 21st century STEM workforce.
But STEM educators, policymakers, and business leaders—particularly those responsible for organizational development—wanted evidence to support claims of impact and value before investing time and money in arts–based learning. At best, many considered the novel approach to STEM learning that we advocated as an untested and counterintuitive form of pedagogy—some simply dismissed the concept of arts–based learning as a scheme to promote and fund arts education with little relevance to the STEM enterprise. In 2004, I was given the unique opportunity to co–edit—along with my late colleague, Ted Buswick—a special edition of the Journal of Business Strategy entirely devoted to arts–based learning for business. From this prestigious platform, we confidently planned to publish all the great studies we were sure existed that would provide our skeptical audiences with proof of impact. We spent a year looking, and came up with very little! In fact, the only real evidence we were able to publish was a well done—though narrow–gauged—experimental study funded by the NSF in the early 1990s about the impact of dance, theater, and music on the communication skills of engineering students at Cooper Union. It had gathered dust on the shelf for more than a decade.
Up until that experience, I had simply assumed—based on my own observations and experiences as an artist and educator—that evidence of the many benefits of arts–based learning must exist, and that all we needed to do as a field was to make sure that decision–makers were aware of it. From that day forward, I realized that the impact of arts–based learning was, for the most part, unproven, and indeed, unknown.
JF: What did you need to quantify the positive impact of arts–based learning on the sciences? HS: A missing element was a set of tools and resources that would translate the theoretical concepts of arts– based learning into practical forms for implementation. These key issues were the subject of literally hundreds of hours of conversation with friends and colleagues at Creativity Connection—in particular, with Gary Steuer, CEO of the Arts and Business Council and subsequently VP for Private Sector Initiatives at Americans for the Arts, who played a pioneering role in developing and supporting programmatic initiatives to foster the emerging field of arts–based learning; at the Learning Worlds Institute—a New York City–based innovation think tank headed by John Reaves and Liz Dreyer, where I served as Senior Fellow in Residence; and, increasingly, with the Informal Science Education Program—ISE, now Advancing Informal STEM Learning—of the National Science Foundation.
These discussions led me to recognize the importance of bringing together artists, scientists, researchers, and policymakers to help identify strategies and opportunities to connect the dots. Beyond playing a purely convening role, I began to sense that the Art of Science Learning could create opportunities to aggregate the very best arts–based learning practices that my colleagues and I had perfected over the previous 15 years, develop tools and re- sources to implement them in a range of STEM learning and practice environments, and use the implementation to study the impact of the arts on the creativity, collaboration, and innovation of STEM learners and professionals.
JF: What were some of the unique challenges for developing these tools with arts–based learning? HS: Creativity and creative thinking are very broad and in some ways elusive concepts—there was and is no single generally accepted definition for either. We decided to work within the subset of definitions that could be most readily applied to creativity as it manifests itself within innovation processes. That gave us a useful point of departure and led us to focus on a set of creative thinking skills that corresponded to the creative process schematic model we had developed a couple of years earlier for our front end of innovation work. This model looks at creativity as a set of two waves of divergent/convergent thought.
The performance of each step is driven by a set of skills that can be measured—the number, range, and originality of ideas generated in the divergent phases and the choices and thought processes used to make them in the convergent phases—giving us rich and nuanced data. An additional benefit of this approach is that the small grain size of the information generated gave us realistic ways of measuring impacts in real world STEM learning and innovation settings.
JF: Your “Activities Test” is an example of one of your quantitative instruments? HS: Yes, our review of the literature led us to Runco and Basadur’s 1993 article on “Assessing Ideational and Evaluative Skills and Creative Styles and Attitudes,” which suggested the possibility of a novel approach by developing our schematic into a short activity test. Over the past several years, we’ve continued the development of what’s becoming an increasingly sophisticated tool that can tell us a great deal about the evolution of creative thinking over time. Participants are given an innovation challenge and 15 minutes to perform a guided thought experiment. The test can be given on a pre–basis as an innovation warm–up and then a day, week, or month later—with a different challenge—as an innovation wrap-up.
JF: Beyond testing, you developed a curriculum around your ideas. HS: The curriculum was comprehensive in that it was designed to cover the entire innovation journey. We approached innovation as much more than problem solving, starting with the most basic questions and continuing all the way to market. The curriculum uses arts–based learning to teach key skills related to each step in the process.
JF: You implemented your curriculum with incubators. Tell us about that process. HS: We formed the Incubators for Innovation with Balboa Cultural Partnership in San Diego, Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and EcoTarium in Worcester. We chose STEM–based civic challenges for each incubator—water resources in San Diego, urban nutrition in Chicago, and transportation alternatives in Worcester. We then recruited 305 STEM professionals, formal and informal educators, artists, business leaders, researchers, policymakers, and students to serve as Art of Science Learning Fellows in year–long cross–disciplinary learning communities to create and develop innovations in response to the challenges.
The Fellows experienced more than 60 workshops that used the arts to help them explore challenges; identify problems and opportunities for innovation; generate, transform, and communicate creative ideas; collaborate on cross–disciplinary teams; and co–create their solutions with external partners.
For example, Metaphorming—a collaborative symbolic modeling process created and led by Dr. Todd Siler, our ArtScientist in Residence—gave Fellows the opportunity to embody, enrich, and communicate their aspirations as they launched their innovation journeys, and to envision their next steps after completion of the program. Open– ended jazz improvisation helped Fellows learn new observational techniques and practice suspending their disbeief. Surrealist visual and spoken word techniques helped stimulate the flow of intuitive insights in their ideation. Laban–based movement work helped them learn to feel numbers and bring openness to their search for productive convergence around shared insights. Clay sculpture as a medium was used for modeling their ideas and assessing how well they stood up to assessment criteria. Fellows were also introduced to a great deal of domain- specific STEM expertise and content, along with in- novation tools and processes drawn from the Product Development Management Association Body of Knowledge and Lean Start–Up methodologies.
After four months of front end work, the Fellows chose the problems and solutions they wanted to work on and formed themselves into 28 cross–disciplinary teams. Over the next eight months, as the teams developed their concepts into innovations, we supported them with ongoing innovation training. They spent time with string quartets to observe successful collaborative behaviors in multi–leader environments, practiced user–centric iterative design thinking in community workshops, and worked with a theater–based technique called Rehearsing Ideas to accelerate their prototyping cycles. We also provided teams with mentors, ongoing access to experts, community partnerships, periodic input to external advisory panels, and modest budgets. Twenty–two of the 28 teams succeeded in developing innovations and bringing their working prototypes to market. Readers can find more information about these projects on our website--www.artofsciencelearning.org.
JF: One of the projects that caught my eye was Kate’s Place. Tell us about that. HS: The San Diego Incubator’s innovation challenge was water—a critical issue for San Diego, the state of California, and many other communities and regions around the globe. A group of Fellows came together around the idea of developing a water–wise model house and garden to serve as a community innovation center. They named their project Kate’s Place in honor of Kate Sessions, an early 20th century conservationist. Kate’s Place had what I like to call a Jack–and–the–Beanstalk/Go–To–Market model. They decided to build a working prototype for the San Diego County Fair, in the hope that in addition to being seen by thousands of people, it might generate development money by winning First Prize. They won six prizes! JF: What are your goals for the future? HS: Here are four big ones—using the hundreds of hours of arts–based innovation workshops we’ve created during the past several years as a point of departure, we plan to develop scalable arts–based innovation resources—tools, process modules, etc.
We also hope to implement these new resources in the widest possible range of settings to generate real world impact on STEM innovation, learning, and engagement. This, in turn, will begin to transform ways in which America’s formal and informal education systems, policy makers, and the broader culture understand and leverage the power of art/science integration.
We plan to develop generalizable data about the effects of arts–based learning on the motivation, focus, deep processing, and engagement of adolescent STEM learners. We also plan to look at the comparative effects of a range of arts–based interventions on creative thinking skills; collaborative, empathic, and emotionally intelligent behaviors; and innovation outcomes of adult STEM professionals.
Lastly, we want to begin exploring ways to leverage the power of arts–based learning and art/science integration on the social dimensions of community innovation and learning.
The work described in this interview was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning program (NSF grant DRL-122411, Integrating Informal S TE M and Arts–Based L earning to Foster Innovation). The grant supported the development of a new curriculum using the arts to teach innovation processes to adolescent and adult learners; implementation of the curriculum in three year-long arts-based Incubators for STE M Innovation; experimental research studying the impact of arts-based learning on creative thinking skills, collaborative behaviors and innovation outcomes; a traveling interactive exhibition; and a wide range of engagement programs for professional audiences and the general public.