STEM Professions AND the Arts: The Genius of Both

Artist conception of an interstellar spacecraft

Marc Millis, a physicist at NASA Glenn, uses images to communicate the physics of interstellar propulsion.

Preparing more students for the STEM professions (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is vital to our economic future. But more advanced courses in math and science at the expense of learning in the fine arts is an example of what Dr. Susan Tave Zelman calls "succumbing to the tyranny of OR rather than embracing the genius of BOTH." For two STEM professionals at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, the process of solving difficult scientific and technical problems involves the whole spectrum of brain activity—from the rigorous logic of math and the methodical approaches of the laboratory to the emotional engagement, imaginative play and intuitive leaps most often associated with artists.

Marc Millis, whose work is focused on the physics of interstellar propulsion, traces his career back to childhood days spent drawing battleships and imagining the flight of an interstellar vehicle he saw on Star Trek. Calculating trajectories under varying conditions initially was just part of the play. Science fiction, says Millis, often helps generate ideas that lead to breakthrough theories. "Balance is the key," he says. "You swap back and forth between inspiration and full rigor. But in the early stages, you fill your brain with all sorts of things and let it play."

Engineer in virtual reality

Rich Rinehart interacts with scientific data using a 3D virtual reality system.

Music is often what fills Richard Rinehart's brain as he works in NASA Glenn's Graphics and Visualization (G-Vis) Lab. Data produced by jet engine simulations often creates beautiful and graceful animations, and Rinehart, a computer analyst by training, has accompanied some of them with his own musical compositions. Such connections between scientific and artistic pursuits are becoming more common. For example, engineers at NASA Glenn's wind tunnel participated in the Ingenuity Art and Technology Festival in Cleveland by collaborating with DanceEvert. The result was "Confluence," a demonstration of the aeronautic states of balance and turbulence that used dance, wind and flowing fabric.

"Confluence" may have been primarily a community outreach activity but it also reflects the vital role of creativity in explaining scientific ideas to non-scientists. Millis, whose work is highly theoretical, says presenting his ideas or solutions often requires finding a picture or developing an analogy to aid the understanding of decision-makers.

Both Millis and Rinehart are cautious about suggesting the addition of explicit creativity techniques to the science curriculum. A "creativity cookbook" could end up obscuring the "purest and most powerful forms of creativity," says Millis. His reflections on his own creativity suggest that using the brain in a variety of ways, including drawing and building plastic models, often helps trigger ideas. Rinehart also regularly seeks exposure to new art forms and believes that interdisciplinary teams help provide more creative solutions. Both believe that fine arts programs can play a role in the development of 21st century STEM professionals.

This article was published in January 2007, Volume 3, Issue 1.

Read other articles about the arts and 21st century skills

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Editor: Deborah Vrabel
Contributors/Advisors: Mary Campbell-Zopf, Ohio Arts Council
Nancy Pistone, Ohio Department of Education