By Jeffrey Toney, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, Kean University
Teaching is a great privilege and an honor, as students entrust educators to inspire them to grow and to see the world in new ways, able to create, and give back. Without creativity, teaching and learning is static, a mind-numbing transfer of knowledge, a process that can do just fine without a teacher or a student. After all, transfer of information from one computer to another is not learning.
Creativity is a messy, beautiful, and unpredictable part of human nature. Every child is creative, exploring their world unfettered and free, until they begin school, facing structured activities often for the first time, in addition to rigid schedules, policies, and procedures as well as standardized tests. I believe that a more effective approach is to better understand conditions that nurture creativity, and get out of the way. Rather than attempting to force learning, let students learn, driven by their own curiosity and passion.
STEM education is in dire need of such a fresh approach. Great discoveries emerge when scientists have the passion and courage to break out of established models, to crush the status quo of knowledge codified in textbooks. Yet the standard STEM curriculum is founded in learning known models, how to collect and analyze data to support a hypothesis often derived from what is already known. Even worse is that scientific teaching laboratories, a perfect place for students to explore and to learn how to think and to create like a scientist, are founded on the replication of classical experiments, in which the outcome is well known. Students pursuing a science career typically do not have an opportunity to explore and create until advanced graduate study or postdoctoral.
STEM to STEAM, I believe, is a powerful approach to supporting educators and students to create an environment conducive for creativity, and can inspire students to learn the sciences or the arts through an entirely different lens. STEAM could help bring back the glory of exploration and delight that is held in the heart of every child, that too often has been lost in schools and in universities hoping to prepare the next generation of educated citizens, whether they become artists, scientists, or both.
Close your eyes and think back to your earliest memories, perhaps when you were two or three years old. I remember jumping up and down with sheer joy as I found a ladybug in our backyard. I stared at its shiny fire engine red shell adorned with black spots as it rested on a bright green blade of grass. I wondered if I could pick it up, reaching out and pinching my fingers towards its tiny body, startled by its sudden flight, disappearing in a flash towards our rusty shed. Running for my mother, I yelled “It can fly!” Before she could reply, I began a rapid-fire of burning questions: Why are they called ladybugs? Is there a manbug? Why are they red? Why do they have black spots? Do they come in different colors? Can I eat them? What do they eat? Where are their wings? Where do they live? If I catch one, can I keep it? I imagined my cute little pet, just me and my ladybug playing games after bedtime, as I whispered secrets that only she could understand.
As a scientist, decades later, I still ask rapid-fire questions in my mind or out loud, sometimes annoying those near me. Scientists are trained to have an unquenchable thirst for understanding nature. While curiosity may be ingrained, the spark of creativity seems to wane from kindergarten onward. The highly acclaimed Robinson Report by the United Kingdom’s National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education backs this up. By testing 1,600 children for divergent thinking, essential for creativity, as they grew up, they demonstrated that a stunning 98% of three to five year olds could think creatively. The magic quickly dissipates: by ages eight to ten years old, it’s 32%, by 13 to 15 years old, it’s 10%. Using this trend, my ability to create as I write this should be about the same as that of a pet rock, but I’ll let the reader decide.
The bridge between art and science to create and to explore and better understand the world remains relatively unappreciated. However, great strides are underway and give me hope that the loss of creativity is not inevitable as children grow up. MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten, RISD’s STEM to STEAM Project, and the National Science Foundation’s funded Picturing to Learn study are a few inspiring examples. Arts education recently became eligible for funding through the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) within the STEM to STEAM initiative. The SciArt Center brings artists and scientists together to create in unique ways that would not be possible if pursued in isolation. These efforts are beginning to bring vibrancy and color into what has traditionally been a rather bland landscape. I hope that you’ll join our emerging community of SciArtists exploring Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? It is a thrilling venture, unpredictable, messy, beautiful, challenging, and just plain fun.
 Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Dr. Toney is a scientist, educator, and writer, published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals, news media, as well as short fiction stories in Sick Lit Magazine, O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of The Veterans Writing Project, The East Coast Literary Review, Crack The Spine and in 2 Elizabeths. Recently, he was nominated for Pushcart Prizes for his 100 word story, “The Quiet Raspberry Wormhole” in Crack The Spine as well as for a collection of 100 word stories in Sick Lit Magazine. He serves as Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at Kean University.