Dr Mae C. Jemison
American engineer, doctor and astronaut Dr Mae C. Jemison is on a mission.
In her 2002 TED talk, the distinguished astronaut, physician, engineer and dancer, argues that the schism between arts and sciences is going to mess up our future in terms of ideas, the abstracts and the creativity. Separating arts from the sciences, and having students choose one or the other, is not wrong but it's foolish.
Dr Jemison argues that there is a fundamental necessity in our world now, she was speaking in 2002, to reconcile and reintegrate the sciences and arts as connected subjects, rather than mutually exclusive and separate from each other.
Dr Jemison presents a common sense argument for integrating the teaching arts and sciences. It provides some key insights into why western countries are facing challenges now with STEM and the recruitment of teachers and students into those subject areas.
In her 2002 TED Talk, Dr Jemison challenges the widely accepted societal notion that people choose one or the other to study, calling that a "foolish choice".
Have we as a society, as an education system, the status quo, unwittingly sent children and adults the wrong message here all along? That it's put people off wanting to study or choose the sciences, rather than embrace both sciences and arts? We've made people choose one or the other, which Dr Jemison sees as a "foolish choice" (what else could it be? When it deprives one of the opportunity to learn all that you are able and willing to learn).
The truth is far more connected, that both sciences and arts are creative.
Not surprisingly, Dr Jemison's TED talk echoes what I heard a NASA manager say recently in an interview during coverage of the NASA-inspired movie, Hidden Figures. That at NASA, they don't separate science, technology, engineering and mathematics from the arts or humanities. At NASA, they view them together.
Rather than refer to STEM, the most widely used acronym to describe the study of the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics, NASA has its own acronym. It's STEAM, as in STEM + Arts=STEAM.
That acronym and how NASA and Dr Jemison view arts and sciences is a fundamentally different proposition to how the education systems around the world treat STEM subjects and humanities.
"People have this idea," Dr Jemison says, "that science and art are...separate and different things. We think of them as separate and different things and this idea was probably introduced centuries ago. But it's really becoming critical now because we're making decisions about our society every day. That if we keep thinking that the arts is separate from the sciences, and we keep thinking it's cute to say that I don't understand anything about that, and I don't understand anything about the other one, then we're going to have problems."
"Some people...think...that science and scientists are not creative, maybe they're ingenious but they're not creative. Various people say things like artists are not analytical but they're ingenious...And when these concepts underlie our teaching and what we think about the world, then we have a problem because we stymie support for everything.
"By accepting this dichotomy, whether it's tongue in cheek, when we attempt to accommodate it in our world..we're messing up our future."
Her 2002 talk foreshadows the challenges schools are now facing with STEM recruitment.
"Because who wants to uncreative? Who wants to be illogical? Talent would run from either of these fields if you said you had to choose either. Then, they're going to go to something where I can be creative and logical at the same time."
Dr Jemison explains why it's important to get teaching sciences and the arts together, rather than as separate pathways.
"If we describe the near future as 10, 20, 15 years from now, that means that what we do today is going to be critically important."
"Because in the year 2015, 2020, 2025, the world, our society, is going to be building on the basic knowledge and abstract ideas, the discoveries, that we came up with today.
"Just as all these wonderful things that we're hearing about here today at this TED Conference that we take for granted in the world right now were really knowledge and ideas that came up in the 50s, 60s, and the 70s.
"That's the substrate that we're exploring today, whether it's the Internet, genetic engineering, laser scanners, guided missiles, fibre optics, hi definition television, sensing, remote sensing from space, wonderful remote sensing photos that we see in 3D weaving, TV programs like Tracker, CD Rewrite Drives, flatscreen, Alvin Ailey's Suite Otis....
"All these things without question, almost without exception, are based on ideas and abstract and creativity from years before," she said.
She presents a powerful argument with insights to challenge the status quo. That was in 2002. Five years later, and it doesn't look like the education system has changed to treat sciences and arts as part of one pathway.
You don't need to be a rock scientist to see that some radically new thinking is needed if we are meet the challenges of the next decades. To show you what I mean about how NASA view science and arts, here's an excerpt from one of NASA's discovery days last year:
STEM + Arts = STEAM! In Discovery's sixth annual multi-site workshop, we will examine how the arts can enhance learner engagement and understanding of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) ideas.
To watch Dr Jemison's talk in full, here it is for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!