The Collaborative’s Research Thought Leaders help provide the strong foundation upon which the Collaborative’s work rests. Each Thought Leader is nationally and internationally recognized in his/her own field and brings an extensive depth of experience and expertise. They also are adept at working across disciplines.
In this issue, we visit with Bob Root-Bernstein, whose research in the arts-sciences and scientific creativity helps underpin the work of the Collaborative. He is a Professor of Physiology at Michigan State University, where he conducts research on autoimmune diseases, the nature of scientific creativity, and arts-sciences. You can learn more about Bob here.
In a conversation with Lucinda Presley, Collaborative Executive Director, Bob talked about his work and its relationship to the Collaborative.
Lucinda: Tell us about how your arts-science research developed.
Bob: I’ve been doing research in this field since graduate school in the 1980s. I always have been interested in many things. For example, although I majored in science at Princeton, I also am an artist and a musician. Like my parents, I am a polymath, with interest and expertise in a number of disciplines. I was interested in not just one narrow field, but in how disciplines intersected. I wanted to be a scientist, but I didn’t like the narrowness of the training. So, as a graduate student, I studied and received my doctorate in the history of science, which allowed me to work across disciplines. In my research, I saw that famous scientists such as Pasteur and Darwin also were artists and that it was these artistic skills that very positively impacted their work. For example, Darwin was polymathic, making breakthroughs in geology, geography, biology, and botany, and using photography as a scientific tool.
After graduate school, I was hired by Jonas Salk, who developed one of the first successful polio vaccines. In that job, I became interested in what made some scientists more creative than others. I then was chosen to be in the first group of MacArthur Fellows (the “Genius Grant” for exceptionally creative and talented individuals). With this grant, I approached this question from a variety of different disciplinary angles. I also moved from individual case studies to longitudinal statistical studies. I completed a longitudinal study of scientists that ran from 1955 to 1988 and had been started by Bernice Eiduson at UCLA and my mother. I found that the scientists with artistic avocations were more likely to win the Nobel Prize and be selected for the elite National Academy of Science. This was the first time there were statistics to show the connections between the arts and scientific success. It’s interesting that our subsequent larger studies with larger populations show the same thing.
Lucinda: What did these findings lead to?
Bob: I then studied the economic outcomes of the work of scientists with arts avocations. I found correlations between scientists who successfully received patents and founded companies and their arts/crafts avocations. I found out in follow-up interviews that inventors and entrepreneurs need to be able to visualize and have manual dexterity for inventing. I also have recently completed three arts-science studies for the National Science Foundation-funded SEAD (Science, Engineering, Arts, Design) network. Here are some interesting findings about integrating the arts and STEM.
Lucinda: What is your position at Michigan State and your individual research focus outside of the arts-science fields? How does your arts-science research impact your work as a professor?
Bob: I’m a professor of physiology. I research autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. So, I have a lab, work on grants, and publish. I use my background in the arts-sciences in my teaching. For example, I see that visual observational skills from art are vital. So are the technical skills involved in art-making and music performance. These provide the observational and technical skills necessary to do research in a lab setting. I don’t take students in my lab anymore who don’t do art or music because they don’t have the learning, manipulative, and visual skills necessary to succeed.
Lucinda: What are steps that need to be taken in the future for K-12 and out-of-school settings to provide a firm foundation for the STEAM movement?
Bob: In my 3rd SEAD study, which addressed K-12 and out-of-school settings, I found that there are far fewer well-controlled, validated studies than one would like to see. So, there is little evidence for the impact of the STEAM movement in these settings. One of the values of the Collaborative is that it is addressing this lack of evidence. The Collaborative’s work will be a model for everyone else as we move forward as to how to develop high-quality programs that validate the STEAM approach in K-12 and out-of-school settings.
Lucinda: What have you discovered in your research that points to the importance of the Collaborative's work?
Bob: The big takeaway from my research is that integrating the arts into STEM education is critically important for training an entire range of skills that people in the sciences, engineering, and math need to be successful. This leads to important tools for thinking that transcend any discipline. These tools include: observing, imaging, abstracting, patterning, analogizing, empathizing, dimensional thinking, modeling, playing, transforming, and synthesizing. These are skills we all need, no matter what discipline we are in. However, these are not taught in our educational system. These skills have formed the backbone of the Collaborative’s research criteria and it already has data from K-12 research that demonstrates the effectiveness of STEAM in addressing these skills.
Another takeaway from my research that points to the Collaborative’s work is that we need to find effective ways to integrate the arts into STEM education and how to most effectively integrate all disciplines. For, my findings show that artists use the same mental tool kit that scientists do. It doesn’t matter where you learn these skills. What is important is that you practice using these skills across disciplines. The Collaborative is focusing on these skills and processes in its research.
Lucinda: How do you see the Research Thought Leaders and the Collaborative benefitting from their work together?
Bob: As a Thought Leader, work with the Collaborative benefits me because what I’m doing is working with theory to create a framework for understanding how to create the best education. That is half of the story. Someone has to take the theory into practice. That is what the Collaborative is doing with its research – finding out how the theory can work effectively in practice. In doing this, we can encounter problems to address and new avenues to explore, which then catalyze my research. That will then strengthen the Collaborative’s work – an effective cycle.