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Art Education Improves Scientific Discovery and Innovation

Every now and then you meet someone who changes the world. That certainly applies to Rebecca Kamen, Professor of Art at Northern Virginia Community College. I met her two years ago when writing an article about the Aspiring Scientists Summer Internship Program (ASSIP) at George Mason University. At that time, she had just been awarded the Chancellor’s Commonwealth Professorship by the Virginia Community College System and was beginning to test her hypothesis that arts education would change the way people viewed the world around them and therefore improve the interpretation of scientific data.

Art by Non-artists

Image of Spatial Memory, depiction of a hippocamups.

Spatial Memory by Aspiring Scientists Himika Rahman, Alexa Corso, Man Hua Zhu, and Akshay D.

The test with the Aspiring Scientists was the first step in validating her hypothesis. She and ASSIP program director, Amy VanMeter, challenged students to interpret their findings in the areas of nanotechnology, bioinformatics, neuroscience, proteomics, and genomic analysis and produce some form of artwork.

I attended the poster session, and their results were not only beautiful, but astonishing and varied widely—from composing and singing songs to rendering images like the one to the right. Please take a moment to look at it and think about what you see.

Revealing a Universal Truth

Spatial Memory is an image of the hippocampus. I think it looks like something completely different. And that’s part of the magic. Through the discovery process associated with interpretation, Kamen has discovered what appears to be a universal truth. First, that the patterns that underlie the different sciences—from neuroscience to astrophysics to chemistry and more—are essentially the same. Second, the experience of considering data through an artistic lens, whether it be visual arts, music, literary arts, or other form of creative activity changes the way researchers interpret their results.

Kamen has demonstrated this universal phenomenon through lectures and projects with Harvard University, MIT, the National Institutes of Health, George Mason University, the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain, and a host of other venues. During the course of the past two years, she’s given 40 lectures. It doesn’t matter the audience, she is able to captivate people’s imagination. And that’s how she came to be invited by the US Patent and Trademark office to speak at World IP Day. They also see the link between art education and innovation.

STEM to STEAM

While a lot of people talk about the STEM to STEAM movement (that’s science, technology engineering and math with the influence of art), few have been able to apply the concept as effectively as Kamen. In fact, she’s retiring from 35 years of teaching to pursue what she views as her new life’s work: Pushing the STEM to STEAM movement forward in a way that improves the quality of scientific discovery and business innovation on a larger scale.

If you’re interested in knowing more about her work, please visit the Transformative Projects page and Rebecca Kamen’s website.

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