Study the Students, Teach the Teachers

Using arts-based workshops as intervention to enhance thinking skills in both high school and college student populations, and informing teaching practices. 



Overview of our proposed research: The vast majority of STEAM experimental studies suffer from one or more major flaws. Most are carried out with zero or inadequate controls so that it is not possible to determine whether the integration of arts into the STEM curriculum is responsible for learning outcomes. One very common outcome that is often reported is that students enjoyed or were excited by the addition of arts to their STEM classes, but such reports are very rarely associated with improved learning measures. One major problem is that arts are usually added to STEM curricula with without explicit “bridges” to link teacher training, curriculum and learning outcomes. In consequence, teachers do not know how to integrate content in meaningful ways and students do not understand the purpose of the art training, much as they may enjoy it. (Root-Bernstein, Pathak, and Root-Bernstein, 2016) Additionally, most STEAM projects separate forms of creativity in STEM and in the arts and design. Neither assumption is correct, resulting in baseless expectations and misleading study results. And finally, “creativity” outcomes in STEAM studies usually involve some form of divergent thinking testing, which decades of research have proven to be unrelated to STEM creativity. (Mansfield and Busse, 1981) A century long series of initiatives to engage students in interdisciplinary studies has had marginal success. Programs that promote collaborations between traditional disciplines often have limited staying power. (Feller 2002, 2006) Few institutions have implemented systemic reforms for lowering institutional barriers to programs that promote research that involves both the sciences and the arts (National Academy of Sciences 2004).


There are numerous studies that show a correlational relationship between the study of music and academic achievement (Kelstrom, 2016; Costa-Giomi, 2004; Schellenberg, 2004), but what principles of music study enhance the higher order learning skills required for academic excellence? Most universities are formed around disciplinary structures, based on 19th century models, and interdisciplinarity is not encouraged. A recent study by Kathryn Evans at UT Dallas, a member of the ATEC Art-Sci lab, entitled “Does studying music enhance higher order learning skills in undergraduate non-music majors?” used an in-depth phenomenological methodology to study 175 students who took music and sound design classes at UT Dallas, who were majoring in other fields, with over 70% in the STEM areas. It revealed that students felt there was a strong connection between specific types of learningin music and sound design and skills in their other courses. (Evans, 2016) Many of these connections overlap significantly with a list of “bridges” that STEM professionals describe as linking arts with scientists in their careers, and which the Root-Bernstein et al. have documented to improve STEM learning outcomes in a recent review of “gold standard”, well-controlled studies of effective STEAM curricula. (Root-Bernstein, Pathak and Root-Bernstein, 2016a). This proposal is the first study in a larger to develop new evidence to guide arts integration in STEM to STEAM.


Root-Bernstein lists the following thinking tools in his bridge for integration of the arts into STEM fields: Observing, Imaging, Abstracting, Patterning, Analogizing, Modeling and Dimensional Thinking, Empathizing and Playacting, Body Thinking, and Transforming and Synthesizing. (Root-Bernstein, Pathak, and Root-Bernstein, 2016) The following six thinking tools are closely linked to the connections revealed in Evans’ study. Observing relates to a portion of the Evans’ study where students were asked if the need to maintain attention to aural information had affected their skills in other courses. Over 75% felt that it had and went on to relate specific examples in listening, multitasking, focus, attention to details, memorization and rigorous attention to lectures. Imaging relates to a portion of the Evans’ study where students were asked about “segmenting” information. Surprisingly, many answered about both the horizontal and vertical direction of segmentation of either polyphonic or simultaneous streams, rather than just the temporal horizontal one, an indication that music and sound design enhance the ability to analyze in two dimensions. Abstracting and Patterning relate to a portion of the Evans’ study about music theory, which requires students to analyze a musical piece, using concrete methods of inquiry. Students reported enhanced skills in critical thinking, pattern recognition, and general learning, in mathematics, languages, writing and physics. Root-Bernstein et al. (2016) discusses the “salient qualities of the objects that form the pattern”, which can be specified as the musical notes as the objects and the phrase as the pattern. Music theory requires the abstraction from smaller units (notes, then themes or motifs) to the larger structure of the work.