In Search of the Next Steve Jobs: Increasing Innovation by Connecting STEM and Art

By putting people at the center of product development and combining their different perspectives, artists and scientists can create better products and ultimately more jobs, experts said at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.
Graphic illustrator Joe Azar put his own twist on note-taking during a panel discussion on STEM and the arts. | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

While connections between art and science have existed for hundreds of years, strengthening those ties may increase job growth in the United States by improving the skills of the 21st-century workforce, speakers said at a AAAS event on science and the arts.

"Synergy in STEM + Arts: Catalyzing U.S. Innovation and Competitiveness" was a two-part panel discussion at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy, the premier gathering for those interested in the intersection of policy with science and technology. More than 400 people attended the Forum, held 1-2 May at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.

Historically speaking, the separation of the arts and the sciences into two distinct fields is a relatively recent phenomenon, institutionalized by the university system over the last 200 years, said Gunalan Nadarajan, dean and professor, University of Michigan School of Art and Design said.

Gunalan Nadarajan (top), Anthony (Bud) Rock (middle), and Cora Marrett (bottom) | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

"I think it's somewhat disingenuous for us to say that we need to find the connections between art and science because there were always connections," Nadarajan said. "These were embodied in individuals who were both artists and scientists," including Leonardo daVinci, Aristotle, and Steve Jobs.

While the blending of art and science isn't new, it's important to build more strategic and purposeful connections between the two, said Anthony (Bud) Rock, chief executive officer of the Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated.

"There is a broader message here that the blending of these attributes and interests across entire societies — not just within the individual but across entire societies — greatly increases the potential for collaboration and will drive innovation and economic growth," Rock said.

"We believe that inter-sector collaborations at the intersections of arts, science, engineering, the humanities, can catalyze new insights and new solutions that will over time address some of our nation's highest priorities," said Cora Marrett, National Science Foundation deputy director.

One of those priorities is increasing job growth. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the Small Business Administration have created jobs by supporting innovative technologies that connect art and science. For example, Javier Saade, Associate Administrator in the Small Business Administration Office of Investment and Innovation, explained that SBIR grants made by NSF in the 1990s supported Z Corp.'s invention of ZPrinting at MIT. The company developed one of the first 3-D printing technologies and was bought by 3-D Systems, one of the biggest companies in 3-D printing today, with about 1,400 employees.

"Our dog in the fight is making sure that whatever discoveries are made create jobs," Saade said, whether those discoveries come from basic science supported by NSF or applied research done by the defense department. "Jobs and research give us competitiveness."

Javier Saade (top) and Harry West (bottom) | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

By putting people at the center of product development and combining their different perspectives, artists and scientists can create better products and ultimately more jobs. Harry West, senior partner in the innovation practice at Prophet, a strategic branding and marketing consultant, spoke about using design to improve a company's bottom line and consumers' quality of life.

After West was hired to make a better portable drinking package for Tetra Pak, a food packaging company that enables distribution of beverages like milk without refrigerated supply chains, he learned that no one, including Tetra Pak, had studied how people drink. He and his team put a camera in the bottom of a water bottle to analyze the different ways in which people drink.

West's team found that on average, people drink at a rate of about 25 ml per second. They also learned that people don't like having to tip their necks back to drink a beverage but their noses frequently get in the way of their drinking experience. Based on this and other research, they helped Tetra Pak develop a new package that debuted in 2011.

"Every decision we're making is about the customer," West said. "We're trying, in a very small way, to make life better — and this package, in a tiny, tiny way, does make life better — and as a result, it builds a better business. It's profitable, and it's purposeful for the business. They're not doing this just to make money, they're doing this because it is a better product for people."

Similarly, when Robert Schwartz started as general manager of global design and user experience at GE Healthcare, he found that his colleagues were very talented but they "could only imagine, it seemed to me, that these were machines they were putting in a place that human beings were subjected to," he said. "These emotionless, faceless medical devices were designed exceptionally well by engineers and scientists and physicists [who] somehow left human beings out of the equation."

"One of the early things that we did was imagine that if we could crack the code on a better healthcare experience for little kids, we could do it for anybody," Schwartz said. He started by talking to child development experts and learned that children live inside stories, a lesson his team applied to redesigning the pediatric MRI experience.

Weeks before children come to the hospital for an MRI, they receive coloring books that take include the MRI as part of an adventure, like traveling in a submarine under the sea. When the children arrive for the MRI, the hospital staff, children and parents all put on costumes to go along with the story. "When they got there, the paradigm for them wasn't this monster behind a big door," Schwartz said. "The paradigm was, look at this cool submarine, and the entire room and environment is decorated that way."

Today's students will make up the workforce of tomorrow and fostering an appreciation for the relationship between arts and sciences starts in schools. However, as a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) said that the growing emphasis on standardized tests in schools comes at the expense of education that encourages students to think creatively.

"Businesses are looking for people who know how to work together, work in teams, be creative and innovative," said Bonamici, co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) Caucus. "They're not really looking for good standardized test takers. They want the skills. They aren't looking for the test scores."

Robert T. Schwartz (top left), Margaret Honey (top right), and Suzanne Bonamici (bottom) | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

Instead, schools should work to foster creative thinking by integrating science and the arts in the classroom. At an elementary school in her district, students learned about soil erosion by growing worms in dirt, Bonamici said. The students turned the dirt into soil and then clay, which they used to make pottery. "It was all connected," she said. "It connected the curriculum and it was very engaging to the students."

Margaret Honey, president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science, concurred with Bonamici's concerns about testing. "It's not often in this town that you hear policymakers stand up and say we're doing too much testing," Honey said. "Putting too much emphasis on accountability is eliminating creativity and passion in learning."

Honey spoke about a Montessori teacher who told her students to take off their shoes, put on a pair of new white socks, and play outside. When the students return to the classroom, the teacher told the students to look at the things that stuck to their socks and begin to think about the processes of sorting and classifying.

"What I love about that story is it's about delight," Honey said. "It's about joy. It's about pleasure. It's about fun. And all of those ingredients should be part of how we think about learning."

"The need to better prepare our youth for a competitive workforce of tomorrow by improving STEM learning has been embraced for some time, but we're just starting to appreciate how critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and imagination are also important work skills for the 21st century," said Bill O'Brien, senior advisor for program innovation at the National Endowment for the Arts. "We may need to take a closer look at how STEM, arts, and humanities learning may provide us with a more holistic understanding of how these skills can develop and then integrate in the work place."