STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. There is a movement afoot to turn that acronym into STEAM by adding the Arts. Science educators have begun to realize that the skills required by innovative STEM professionals include arts and crafts thinking. Visualizing, recognizing and forming patterns, modeling and getting a "feel" for systems, as well as the manipulative skills acquired in the use of tools, pens and brushes, are all demonstrably valuable for developing STEM capability. And the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) have gotten the message: formal meetings between the two agencies are underway to figure out how to fund productive research and teaching at the intersections between these sets of disciplines.
NSF and NEA also realize that adding the Arts to STEM is not enough. We also need to add the thinking skills embodied in Reading and wRiting. STEAM may condense into a STREAM.
Writing, like any other art, teaches the entire range of "tools for thinking" that are required to be creative in any discipline. (1) To be a lucid writer, one must observe acutely; abstract out the key information; recognize and create patterns; use analogies and metaphors to model in words some reality that takes place in another dimension; translate sensations, feelings and hunches into clearly communicable forms; and combine all this sensual information into a words that create not only understanding but also delight, remorse, anger, desire or any other human emotion that will drive understanding into action.
Think about it: what we've just described could be what a scientist or mathematician does, too!
And that is our point. wRiting isn't just wordsmithing. wRiting also enables mastery of creative process. Whether one is writing fiction or non-fiction, the translation of inchoate facts, feelings, impressions, images and emotions into words requires the same imaginative skills as creative activity in other fields. Moreover, since words are our primary means of public expression, anyone who has not mastered their creative use is simply under-prepared for communicating in any discipline, including the STEM subjects.
This is not just theory. The average science course will require a student to learn the same number of new vocabulary words that he or she would learn in a foreign language course. Really. Take a look at a medical dictionary sometime, or a scientific dictionary, or an encyclopedia of mathematics and see if they aren't akin to something like French or Korean, even though they are (supposedly!) written in English. Those students incapable of parsing and manipulating their own language with relative ease and to their own ends, will be in no position to master the use of a STEM language. This, in fact, is the conclusion of a recent series of articles in the journal SCIENCE (2). Mastery of the English language is not only a prerequisite to scientific success but demonstrably improves performance in STEM courses.
Many scientists have reached this conclusion from their own experiences. For example, Priya Venkatesan double-majored in comparative literature and biochemistry at Dartmouth College and writes: "While conducting molecular biology research...I have found the parallels between literature and science all too striking. Further, I have determined that being a literary theorist could have advantages in the laboratory -- not only in enhancing scientific productivity, but also in more accurately understanding scientific activity." (3)
Nobel laureate and physicist William D. Phillips writes, similarly, that "[i]n high school, I enjoyed and profited from well-taught science and math classes, but in retrospect, I can see that the classes that emphasized language and writing skills were just as important for the development of my scientific career as were science and math. I certainly feel that my high school involvement in debating competitions helped me later to give better scientific talks, that the classes in writing style helped me to write better papers." (4)
Fellow laureate and chemist Roald Hoffmann has gone a step further: he has become a professional poet as well as a scientist. He notes that "[t]he language of science is a language under stress. Words are being made to describe things that seem indescribable in words -- equations, chemical structures and so forth. Words do not, cannot mean all that they stand for, yet they are all we have to describe experience. By being a natural language under tension, the language of science is inherently poetic. There is metaphor aplenty in science. Emotions emerge shaped as states of matter and more interestingly, matter acts out what goes on in the soul." (5) Poetry helps Hoffmann understand not only what he does, but why.
These anecdotes are confirmed by large statistical studies. In one recent study, for example, we compared the avocations and hobbies of the average scientist to Nobel Laureates, members of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society. Nobel Laureates and members of the prestigious academies were at least twenty times as likely to have a writing avocation as the average scientist. And that's the most conservative reading of the data. The real difference may be more than one hundred times. (6)
If you want to train innovative and successful scientists, there isn't any doubt that you want to teach them to love and cherish writing. It is therefore with great regret that we witness what looks to be the demise of one of the premier writing programs in the country. The National Writing Project teaches teachers to teach writing effectively. But in the rush to focus resources ever more tightly on the science and technology skills expected to make America more innovative, the NWP has lost its funding. Wait just a minute! By shortchanging student mastery of writing, might we not be undermining the very creative and innovative goals to which we aspire? Writing provides all students a primary entrée into learning how to learn and how to imagine and create. As Grant Faulkner, one of the editors at the National Writing Project says, "Writing is thinking.... So we shouldn't sacrifice the teaching of writing." (7) And certainly not for the sake of STEM subjects. That's just cutting off our collective nose to spite our collective face. Really!
Turning STEM into STEAM will energize the sciences, but going one step further and turning STEAM into STREAM will produce the very strongest currents of creativity. We all have so much to learn from each other, let's integrate our most vital disciplines, not set them at each others' throats.
© Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein 2011
(1) Root Bernstein, R. S. & Root Bernstein, M. M. 1999. Sparks of Genius. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
(2). Woodford, F. P. 1967. "Sounder Thinking Through Clearer Writing" Science: 743-745. DOI:10.1126/science.156.3776.743; Miyake, A.; Kost-Smith, L.E.; Finkelstein, N.D.; Pollock, S.J.; Cohen, G. L.; & Ito, T. A. 2010. "Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation" Science 26 November: 1234-1237. [DOI:10.1126/science.1195996]; Science, 2010. SPECIAL SECTION ON SCIENCE, LANGUAGE, AND LITERACY, 23 April: 447ff.
(3) Venkatesan, P. 2007. "Yin meet yang." The Scientist. 28 Sept. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/ ; see also Rohn, J. 2007. "An awkward symbiosis." The Scientist, 1 April http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/52985/.
(4) Phillips, W. D. 2011. "William D. Phillips - Autobiography". Nobelprize.org. 16 Mar 2011 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1997/phillips.html.
(5) Hoffmann, R. 2011. "Roald Hoffmann - Autobiography". Nobelprize.org. 16 Mar 2011 http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/chemistry/laureates/1981/hoffmann.html.
(6) Root-Bernstein, R. S. with L. Allen, L. Beach, R. Bhadula, J. Fast, C. Hosey, B. Kremkow, J. Lapp, K. Lonc, K. Pawelec, A. Podufaly, C. Russ, L. Tennant, E.Vrtis & S. Weinlander. 2008. Arts Foster Success: Comparison of Nobel Prizewinners, Royal Society, National Academy, and Sigma Xi Members. J Psychol Sci Tech 1(2):51-63.
(7) Faulkner, G. 2011. "To write or not write. To be or not be." http://www.examiner.com/literature-in-oakland/to-write-or-not-to-write-t....
Excerpt of poem by William Carlos Williams and a bowl of plums &http://www.grammarmatters.com/grammatical-tense-in-english-part-1/