Innovation does not happen in a vacuum. It typically requires people who have extraordinary skills, knowledge of the rules of diverse disciplines and an added desire to integrate and break those rules. It is from this rule-breaking, “trickster” energy that I believe true innovation grows.

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Blue Man Group. Photo: Andrea LaBarge Mills

My entire career, and life, has been devoted to tapping into my own creativity and that of those around me to create innovation. I am a founder of Blue Man Group, an organization that started as an outrageous idea: inspire creativity in both our audiences and ourselves and speak “up” to the intelligence of those at our shows while reaching “in” to their childlike innocence. We wanted to create a special kind of organization to benefit both our audiences and ourselves—a place where people continually learn and grow. We wanted to recombine influences to make something new.

The basic mission and values of Blue Man Group have transferred remarkably well to an educational setting. At Blue School in New York, we have created a pre-primary and primary educational program where creativity is cherished and encouraged and children fall in love with the joy of learning. Our approach is to weigh creativity, innovation, self and social learning and collaboration as heavily as all the academic subjects in order to be responsive to the whole child. In short, we absolutely believe that we can create the conditions in which innovation flourishes by giving our young inquirers the tools to navigate and integrate the skills of scientists and artists, heroes and innocents, group members and “tricksters.”

At Blue School, students learn to be more flexible thinkers, collaborators and responsive to different situations. For example, kindergartners’ studies focus on the world within their classroom and outside the school as they become inquisitive researchers, scientists and group members, working artists and explorers; in one assignment, the kindergarten class broke into three research groups to study how people cross the East River, compiling their research through visual representation and dramatic play to learn experientially. In other lessons, our 4th and 5th graders learn through their studies of literature, analyzing the specific traits and roles that various characters assume. Our 2nd graders are currently engaged in an activity that melds math, science and art, studying the Brooklyn Bridge to understand its construction and making their own reconstructions of it in several study groups. In all cases, this way of working allows students to practice the skill of metacognition; lessons provide them with opportunities to understand the choices they have in life and in group dynamics.

In Blue Man group, there is no separating art from science from technology from math from engineering. It is the integration and recombination of all these disciplines that leads to our show on stages worldwide. One scene from a past Blue Man performance went as far as explaining and demonstrating the phenomenon of synesthesia—hearing colors or seeing sound. We also give our audiences a tour through the human brain. In all cases, we try to combine science and art in a way that is informative, accurate, funny, accessible and entertaining.

I had a recent email exchange with my friend and Blue School Advisory board Member Dr. Dan Siegel about the movement of STEM to STEAM (adding Art and Design to STEM education and practice), and he replied with an interesting scientific perspective:

"The mind integrates both internal and external perceptual streams to create the experience of reality and life. When education provides only the externally organized domain of knowledge – as with science, technology, engineering and math – the internal contribution to living and making sense of lived reality is under-involved. The risk of such externally constrained didactic emphasis and structure is that the freedom of new possibilities, the open space of imagination, the new ways of combining old things, each central to innovation, may be not only undervalued, but also under-developed. The freedom to create new approaches is fostered with internal perception—the way we focus attention on our internal experience.

Art is a human expression that brings the inside out. In diverse ways, art is a skill and communication that requires internal perception for both its expression and for deeply appreciating its meaning within perception. We inquire how art makes us feel, the bodily sensations it evokes, the emotions that arise, the associations with other experiences. Art expands how we think, too, as it challenges our previously existing models of reality and invites us to imagine alternate approaches to life. Art inspires us to SIFT the mind as we experience our internal world of Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts. SIFTing our internal experience sets the stage for the art of STEAM to empower the mind to move beyond what externally exists and imagine new ways at the heart of the innovation we need for living and thriving in our ever-changing world."

Dr. Siegel hit the nail on the head. I don’t just believe that the integration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math – STEAM – is a good thing—I believe that it is absolutely essential for creating the innovation required to change the trajectory of our world toward a sustainable and harmonious future in the limited timeframe we have in which to work.