Kearny High chemistry class
Students in a chemistry class at the Kearny High School of Science Connections and Technology. Courtesy SDUSD

When you hear “life science,” you may envision researchers tirelessly working at the lab bench, studying microorganisms under the microscope. You may think of biotech executives refining their clinical pipelines, discovering and developing therapeutics with the hope of saving patients’ lives. Or maybe you see bioinformatics scientists sorting through massive amounts of data to increase our understanding of complex protein structures and the human genome.

You probably don’t think of art.

The life sciences, as well as the remaining STEM subjects, are often associated with the left brain: the hemisphere of our mind that deals with concrete and logical matters like problem solving and analytical thinking. And this grouping, for the most part, makes sense. These disciplines are largely systematic, whether you’re working in the realm of drug discovery, attempting to come up with an innovative clinical trial design, or synthetically engineering new therapies. There is a clear “problem” at hand, and scientists, engineers, mathematicians—and every job that falls in between—arrive at an equally clear “solution.”

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As it turns out, an increasing number of college students are studying STEM disciplines, leaving the humanities by the wayside, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. This can be attributed to the weight that society has placed on STEM careers, as technology continues to have greater and greater influence throughout our daily lives. STEM careers are also seen as more stable and lucrative. And in a post-recession world with rising university tuition fees, this is an important consideration that college students must take into account.

But what happens when you remove the arts—and right-brain thinking—from the STEM equation completely?

The Other Hemisphere

Our right brain is often correlated with creativity, innovation and out-of-the-box thinking. “Right-brain” thinkers are thought of as artists, painters, writers: careers that are dependent on imagination and inventiveness.

Yet, isn’t it true we need this same creativity, imagination and inventiveness in STEM careers?

The scientific method—the basis of modern thinking–begins with a simple hypothesis: a concept that can explain a question or uncertainty in our natural world. And our natural world is filled with questions and uncertainties.

Liisa Bozinovic
Liisa Bozinovic

Drug discovery depends on just that—discovery. Innovative clinical trial design requires—you guessed it—innovation. Synthetic biology is a discipline borne out of the likes of science fiction. How can scientists come up with such hypotheses and advancements without sparks of ingenuity fueling their ideas?

And as it turns out, students are better able to comprehend STEM subjects when the arts are integrated into their studies, both in K-12 and in secondary education. In a study published in the Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education last year, researchers highlighted the numerous reasons that the visual, spatial and graphical arts aid in scientific understanding and comprehension.

Not only does artistic representation help to explain difficult-to-grasp scientific and mathematical topics, it also helps to enrich students’ understanding of the subjects holistically. This cross-disciplinary teaching approach allows the next generation of the STEM workforce to problem-solve and create—combining both modalities and hemispheres of thought.

Putting The ‘A’ in STEAM

San Diego is home to world-renowned schools, universities and research institutes. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, chose our city as the home for the groundbreaking Salk Institute in 1963. Last year, Scripps Research was named the most influential nonprofit scientific institution in the world, according to a Nature index. UC San Diego offers some of the best biomedical and engineering programs in the country.

We also have one of the largest public-school districts in the nation. In order to best educate and prepare the future STEM workforce, our city’s educational systems cannot dismiss the arts. STEM must become STEAM.

Beyond formal education, whether you’re a parent or mentor, you can still incorporate STEAM in your kids’ daily lives, helping to excite tomorrow’s workforce. From creating laboratory experiments at home, building engineering contraptions, or painting scientific illustrations, there are a number of family-friendly activities to involve younger generations in STEAM learning. In fact, you can check out an online list of 28 different STEAM activities for kids.

I encourage you to attend the San Diego Festival of Science & Engineering to experience the benefits of STEAM learning first-hand. This year, a number of artistic components will be incorporated into the festival, including painting, maker’s workshops, textile design, photography and much more. The festival, hosted by the Biocom Institute, once again begins with the family-favorite EXPO DAY on Saturday, March 2, to officially kick-off the nine-day-long event featuring hundreds of exhibitors and STEAM-related activities.

We all know that innovation in any field requires creativity. And even science tells us that art is a proven catalyst for new discoveries.

Liisa Bozinovic is executive director of the Biocom Institute.