STEM and the Arts and Humanities

The false dichotomy that suggests schools must choose between STEM (or STEAM) and the humanities would not merit the time it takes to write an article if not for a dangerous crescendo of backlash clouding the senses of boards and administrations around the independent school world.

Clearly, both STEM and the humanities are important, and I am as shocked by the anemic computer science and robotics offerings at many famous humanities-type schools as I am by the wholesale cuts in humanities elsewhere. Like any other school, my school — Taipei American School (Taiwan) — has its shortcomings, but the administration embraces both academic areas as a matter of course and celebrates both equally. The school expects excellence in both areas, and it deliberately invests enormous resources in support of both. For the purpose of this polemic, I am combining the arts and humanities, here taken in the broadest sense, for in many schools, the arts take a back seat to the humanities, even though they are just as important. The critical-thinking skills and creativity that are fostered in the non-STEM areas are what make STEM relevant. Beyond that statement, I am incapable of explaining why water is wet or why the humanities are important; I can do no more than describe some aspects of our upper school program and the ways in which STEM and the humanities are deliberately made partners, rather than bitter rivals.

First, I should probably say a word or two about Taipei American School, which is a K–12 American independent school located in a vibrant international capital city. With a total of more than 2,200 students enrolled (887 in upper school), we have obvious challenges, but we also are blessed with the enormous advantage of depth and diversity of talent. While there are certain filters at play when it comes to admission (e.g., all students must hold a foreign passport), we have a surprising advantage: the lack of selective admissions. As long as there is space, any student who can realistically benefit from (and thrive in) our program is admitted; therefore, our diverse student body enthusiastically follows multifarious passions and talents.

However, graduation requirements ensure that all students have a program rich in both STEM and the arts and humanities.

Visual Arts — In and Out of STEM

A cursory tour of the classrooms in the visual arts department is enough to understand the striking marriage between STEM and the arts and humanities — and the wisdom of the administration and chair who built the program. Dripping with paint and oozing with clay, two large spaces in an older building are juxtaposed with two equally large spaces in a new building; these new spaces are replete with supercomputers, 3-D printers, a 3-D clay printer, tablets, and other items I do not fully understand. Students learn drawing and painting, but they also learn Adobe Creative Suite, for example. Many visual artists and all journalism students learn Adobe InDesign. It is largely because the visual arts department has bought into the essential link between STEM and the arts (at our school, we use the acronym STEAM) that so many of our students, knowing that there are graphic and industrial arts professional opportunities that await, attend art and design colleges. As it turns out, the computer science and robotics department has contributed to the increased interest in art and design by offering a very popular interdisciplinary course: 3-D Design, Media Arts, and Programming. This kind of cross-fertilization, fostered by the administration but entirely created and nurtured by the teachers and students, means that the visual arts now attract both the traditional creative artists and the creative STEM students.

The various film studies courses housed in the visual arts department also add opportunities for students to combine creativity, artistic sense, collaboration, sedulous work, and computer applications. The latest addition is a new interdisciplinary course: Virtual and Augmented Reality, offered jointly by the visual arts department and the computer science and robotics department. The class combines coders, filmmakers, and artists, and it requires collaboration — not to mention creativity and tech-savvy learners. The A in STEAM counts.

Performing Arts — Make Room for the Techies

Like many schools, Taipei American School offers classes in technical theater, and the students who gravitate to these classes tend to specialize in the traditional areas of scene design and construction, light design, and stage management. However, with the advent of sophisticated, programmable sound and light boards, tech theater has grabbed the attention of the computer techies, and the techies have revolutionized our performances — going well beyond handling light and sound. This was perhaps most evident in last year’s production of Les Misérables.

We were lucky enough to have one creative student programmer who had already produced wonders with the live streaming of swimming championships held at school. Not only did he code the Olympic-style graphics for the lane assignments but he also built an automated camera to follow the swimmers at ground level and manned one of the cameras located in the rafters (a major sports brand later purchased his programming code). He had also rigged cameras and written code so that our production of The Laramie Project appeared to include live national news feeds. For Les Misérables, he took on all the graphic projections, including the sewer and Javert’s plunge into the Seine— projections that would have made Broadway or London green with envy.

But the collaboration went further than sound, lighting, and projection. The artistic director went to the computer science and robotics department for help producing theater rifles. The technical theater director, student artists, and student “CS & Robotics Nerds” (their term) collaborated to hand draw the most complicated parts of the rifles in CAD software and printed them on 3-D printers. The tech theater students took care of the stocks and gun barrels, as well as the final assembly. Rather than feel overshadowed by STEM, the performing arts department has embraced STEM and benefited greatly from the close relationship.

Long Live Arts Education

Taipei American School invests heavily in the arts and humanities, and the most expensive area of our operation is the arts. The performing arts department alone offers more than 30 courses and almost continually occupies the major spaces (black box theater, auditorium) with productions. In addition to a bevy of music teachers, there are two full-time dance teachers, one full-time and one part-time theater teacher, and two technical theater professionals/teachers. Typically, the fall dance production includes 55 to 75 dancers, many of them boys. The fall theater production always includes an ambitious cast and production team. The spring music concert, part of the Upper School Arts Festival, includes guest conductor and Joanna Nichols Performing Artist in Residence Richard Gill, former artistic director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s education program and conductor emeritus at the Victorian Opera in Australia, who spends a month with students of all ages. The performances sell out well in advance.

As a result, our performing arts faculty members are not envious of their STEM colleagues; our community values both areas and celebrates both departments’ successes equally.

Science and Fiction

Sometimes, as we know, the most felicitous educational moments are a result of teachers seizing the moment and creating special opportunities. When our Joanna Nichols Visiting Scholar for 2014–15, David Spergel, professor of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, was announced, not all humanities enthusiasts jumped for joy. First, everyone was going to have the opportunity to read (translation: going to have to read) a rather dense book about astrophysics. Furthermore, few saw the importance of astrophysics in high school science, much less in high school humanities.

Some humanities teachers, however, snatched up the opportunity. The European history teachers, for example, chose to lend special emphasis to the Copernican Revolution. Most notable, perhaps, was the brainchild of the teachers of the popular, multisection Science Fiction elective in English. They invited Spergel to their classes to lead discussions about the science of science fiction. The professor centered his presentation on the then-popular film Interstellar, and open discussion and Q&A followed. The teachers saw STEM as their friend, not their enemy, and the integration of the astrophysicist into their classes was an enormous success. This is just one spectacular example of how STEM and the humanities can and should complement one another.

Owning Your Curriculum

Many people would like to peg Taipei American School as a “stereotypically ethnically Asian STEAM school.” While there is no doubt that many strengths and passions lie there, the numbers tell a different story. This year, for instance, 162 students are enrolled in computer science and robotics courses, but almost as many (142) are studying psychology; students are as interested in human intelligence as in artificial intelligence. The various scientific research classes enroll 76 students, but there are 100 students enrolled in dance, 104 in theater, and 313 in music (not lessons — mostly ensemble classes). Currently, there are more seniors enrolled in social studies courses (268) than either science (252) or mathematics (241) courses — and this does not take into account our political science and forensics department, which houses many classes that are usually included in high school social studies departments.

In the final analysis, schools must own their curriculum, and it would be dishonest or naive to blame society, high finance, or parents for the slings and arrows — not to mention cuts — that the arts and humanities have suffered. The schools making those cuts must take the blame. Taipei American School, for example, does not pay science and math teachers more than art teachers. In fact, all teachers are paid according to the same scale; the school invests as much money in Model UN as it does in robotics; there are two full-time dance teachers in the upper school alone. The balance does not come by chance. It is the result of deliberate, measured choices. We believe that our students’ education is worth the cost.

It is clear to this observer that vibrant, challenging arts and humanities courses are as relevant and popular as ever, and embracing STEM neither condones nor encourages slighting the humanistic heritage that gives meaning to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Richard Hartzell

Richard Hartzell is upper school principal of Taipei American School (Taiwan). A student at Taipei American School works on a STEAM art project.