Career Readiness and the Arts

Thank you for including me here this evening for what I think is a critically important conversation.  I understand that the title of this forum is, “Arts Education: Essential for All New Yorkers.”  I am one who believes that the Arts play a major role in society at every level.  In this time of trauma for our nation and the world, where we are immersed simultaneously in a global pandemic and a major social movement to combat racism, I believe the Arts are more important than ever.  The greatest challenges facing humanity today are not purely, or even primarily, technical.  From a technological standpoint, we already know how to solve the problems of climate change, poverty, clean water, affordable healthcare, nuclear proliferation, and others.  But we don’t have the political, social, policy, and communication skills to put these issues to bed.  I believe that the Arts have a strong role to play in pointing out disparities and energizing people around solutions. 

While acknowledging this as the backdrop for this evening’s forum, I’ve been asked to speak specifically about a subject that seems almost mundane by comparison: the role of the Arts in career readiness.  I’ll do my best to address this, but, given that I am an electrical engineer and president of a STEM-based university, you might wonder why I’m even here.  Part of the reason is that RIT is not just a STEM institution.  We have preeminent programs in the arts, especially in the studio arts, photography, visual arts, and digital media.  A second reason is that STEM and the Arts are strongly interrelated.  Maybe the biggest reason is because I care about the Arts.

There are three main points I’d like to make:  1) There is a false dichotomy between STEM and the Arts.  They are closely related and the same brains do both.  2) The relationship between STEM and the Arts matters for career readiness.  3) Most of our curricula in K-12 and in higher ed lack sufficient experiences in design and making.  The Arts can provide these essential experiences to every student, helping to build a more creative, adaptable workforce for the future.  

Let’s begin with point 1).  Human brains that are good at STEM disciplines often are adept in one or more of the Arts.  Or, I could say vice versa.  At RIT, I have found that a large fraction of my STEM students are talented musicians, and also artists and actors. When I was Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, I learned that 70% of my undergraduates were musicians.  This mirrors my own extended family, where both math and music came easily to me and my siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I studied electrical engineering, whereas my youngest brother studied theater.  And yet we have similar aptitudes and overall interests.  We’ve both been heavily involved in music, as have many STEM faculty that I know.  Two of my faculty colleagues in engineering starred in rock bands prior to going back to college and earning their PhDs.  Others are classical musicians or jazz performers.  In my travels to major cities around the world, my first stops are always an art museum, a cathedral, and sometimes a theater.  After that, I’ll look for a science museum.

Perhaps it should not be a surprise that ability and interest in STEM and the Arts often inhabit the same brain.  For conciseness, let’s restrict to music.  There is a substantial research literature on the mathematics and physics of pitch, chords, melody, harmony, scales, tuning, and musical instruments.  Rhythm can be modeled using discrete math.  In fact, rhythm is related to x-ray crystallography and radio astronomy!  The neuroscience and psychology of music was seriously studied by D. J, Levitan in his book, This is Your Brain on Music, published in 2006.

Knowing about these connections, and always striving to recruit better students at RIT, last year we launched a Performing Arts Scholars Program, primarily for students in STEM majors, where we offer small scholarships and special programming in the performing arts.  Half of the students recruited into this program have been women, and test scores for these students are substantially higher than the campus average.  In the not-too-distant future, we expect that about a quarter of our student body will be enrolled in this program. 

But, to Point 2), does this matter with respect to job readiness and careers?  I’ll try to answer this without being too utilitarian, because I am one who believes that the arts are core to what it means to be human.  I don’t want to tell you that you ought to learn to play a musical instrument in order to improve your hand-eye coordination!  That said, what is needed for a successful career?  According to Forbes (Nov. 4, 2019), the five most important job skills for the future are:

  1. Emotional intelligence
  2. Creativity
  3. Flexibility and adaptability
  4. Data literacy
  5. Tech savviness

So it’s partly about STEM, but it’s not all about STEM or even mostly about STEM.  Emotional intelligence, creativity and flexibility are vital.  And, the Arts are all about this.  I find that it is better to focus on these broad types of skills, because most people will hold many different jobs in their careers, and most jobs that will exist 20 years from now haven’t even been created yet. 

Art and design thinking underlies how Apple and many other leading companies make their money.  We purchase Apple products not because they have better electronics inside; we purchase them because of their look and feel, their functionality, and their refined human-computer interface.  That’s all about art and design, not technology.  The same is true of a luxury automobile.  And it’s not that different with any of the finer things in life.  As another example, I’ll mention the field of animation, as in movies and electronic games.  An RIT alumnus, Chris Edwards, owns the firm The Third Floor, which does the animation work for 80% of Hollywood’s blockbuster movies.  His employees rely fully on both their technical skills and their artistic ability to produce astonishing special effects and animated characters.

STEM and the Arts also intersect in the research realm.  For brevity, I’ll offer just one example.  It is easy to make 2-D coatings or sheets at the nanoscale level, but very difficult to make 3-D structures.  In one approach to the latter, a materials scientist at the University of Michigan worked with a faculty member in the Arts who is an expert in origami to determine how extremely thin sheets, only a few atoms thick, can be folded into microscopic 3-D structures having desired geometries and properties.  Fascinating!    

Let me address my third point, which has to do with design and making.  I’m a huge proponent of incorporating synthesis, as well as analysis, within an education.  By synthesis, I mean creation and innovation (putting creativity into action).  In most STEM coursework, a student goes deeper and deeper and eventually becomes an expert at a specific thing, e.g. the design of an integrated circuit or “chip.”  More generally, as any of us go through the K-12 and college educational process, our brains are taught to think in a very structured way and we slowly become less and less creative and we lose our ability to think laterally.  The Arts provide a wonderful countervailing force.  Now that’s a recipe for innovation! 

Within an academic setting, creation, innovation, and “making” can occur in every field, whether it be writing a poem or short story, choreographing a dance, composing a piece of music, advancing a new scientific hypothesis, developing a new government policy, designing a new piece of technology, creating a social movement, or launching a start-up company.  The point is that every student can be involved in creating things that never before existed, and then putting those concepts into motion.  This is a hallmark of the Arts!  And, if the development of this mindset and the leadership to bring new ideas to fruition are an intentional part of the education of every student, then these graduates will be especially well prepared for the future. 

Finally, let me close with a quote from Mae Jemison, the famous NASA astronaut, dancer, and medical doctor: “Space belongs to all of us.  There is science in dance and art in science.”

Thank you for your attention, and I welcome your questions.