When it comes to learning in the twenty-first century, many schools have it upside-down; many want you to memorize the correct answers. World-class learners of the twenty-first century, however, need to know how to figure things out, and this requires using the skills of artists and scientists.

material marvels

Scientist Anissa Ramirez in her lab demonstrating the arrangement of atoms using blue dots on the back of books, and showing how a small shift in the books changes this arrangement. This demo can be found in her video for Material Marvels. Photo: Wes Choi 

Artists and scientists are not too different from each other. Both groups use trial-and-error, need patience, apply imagination, are friends with failure, possess curiosity and draw on creativity. These elements are part of the artist’s palette and the scientist’s toolkit. Artists and scientists both know that the human endeavor is about discovery, which is often accompanied by revising and improving upon an idea. Having the right answer does not have the premium it once had now that Google exists. The mantra that knowledge is power is now dead. Information is everywhere and cheap.

In an age of Google and Big Data, we need thinkers—those who know what to do with all of this information. Humans still have the market on thinking; there isn’t an algorithm for it yet. Important twenty-first century skills are creativity/curiosity, critical thinking/problem solving and collaborative/communication skills—the 5Cs. These are skills that artists and scientists use all the time.

These twenty-first century skills are innate to children, but they are often “educated” out. Every school year, millions of five-year-olds enter kindergarten armed with creativity and curiosity, but somewhere along the way, they are lost. Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” We need to bring these skills back. Artists and scientists could take a leadership role in showing how to present these skills to children. If schools cannot show them these skills, then the rest of us must.

A PERSONAL JOURNEY

Keeping kids creative is not just a moral imperative but an economic one. We do not have a crystal ball, but we do know that the careers, opportunities and challenges of the future will require creative problem solvers. And, from my vantage as a scientist, one of the best ways to encourage creativity and curiosity is by improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. STEM requires creativity to discover new things and stokes the fires of curiosity with one question leading to another.

In the tradition of Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, there need to be scientists to inspire our youth and the next generation with STEM. After a decade of working in academia, I took a leap and traded in my science-professor hat for a science-popularizer one. I became a science evangelist to get kids excited.

STEM is inherently fun, but schools are too constrained or unable to show that. In response, I developed a short video series called Material Marvels to showcase cool materials at work, like solar cells, nanomaterials and space shuttle tiles. In these videos, I try to hook audiences with big demonstrations (often with a blowtorch) and then teach the science concepts once they are drawn in. In the series Science Xplained, I make videos about general science topics, such as the physics of football. I’ve learned from this exercise that kids (and adults) want to understand; they just need information to be presented in an approachable and engaging way.

NEXT STEPS?

To improve schools, both artists and scientists must take part in the conversation. We need all hands on deck to get children excited about learning. One way we can all get involved is to show the importance of creativity and curiosity in our work. Creative parents beget creative children. If children see that creativity is valued, they will try to emulate it. Being surrounded by creative activities makes creativity seem less foreign and less onerous. If you are creative, expose children to your creative endeavors. Invite them to your tinker space or studio. Get their hands dirty doing something fun (while teaching them along the way). Make kid-friendly descriptions of what you do. If you are creative and have STEM leanings, consider writing a children’s book on science, create engaging posters, images or videos or put science in your performance or piece. We must give children ways to nurture their curiosity and creativity at every opportunity possible. Supporting children who think and create is our best legacy.