Integrating the arts and humanities into STEM learning

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January 01, 2016

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Scientists, educators, policymakers, and others have noted the importance of preparing scientists, engineers, and medical doctors not only for the laboratory but for broad participation in civic life. (McGinn and Roth 1999).  Researchers and others have argued that the skills and knowledge required for civic participation by all citizens in a science and technology-dependent society might be fruitfully learned through engagement with the arts and humanities (cite needed.)

Recently, funded projects have explored the potential for the arts as part of a STEM curriculum for students and practitioners.  Similarly, there have been experiments in integrating the humanities into these curricula.  It is important to note that while the arts and humanities share many concerns, it would be a mistake to conflate the two as regards their impact on STEM learning.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Humanities contributions

Donnelly (2004) has identified four distinctive contributions of the humanities to science education: 1) an appeal to an autonomous self with the right and capacity to make independent judgements and interpretations; 2) indeterminacy in the subject matter of these judgements and interpretations; 3) a focus on meaning, in the context of human responses, actions, and relationships, and especially on the ethical, aesthetic, and purposive; and finally, 4) the possibility of commonality in standards of judgement and interpretation, under conditions of indeterminacy.

Other researchers have acknowledged different cultures might arrive at different meanings and judgments. These researchers recommend that science instruction, whether formal or informal, make explicit reference to the ways in which people from different cultural backgrounds use scientific and quasi-scientific methods to understand and interpret the world. This cross-cultural perspective can awaken students to the values, assumptions, and biases underlying any scientific investigation (Snively and Corsiglia 2001).

Humanities preparation can provide a foundation for success in scientific careers. For example, Wershoft Schwartz et. al. (2009) report that by objective measures such as test scores and grades, students with undergraduate majors in the humanities “perform just as well, if not better, than their peers with science backgrounds” during medical school and residency.

Crossing cultures

Bechtel and Hamilton (2007) have applied the practice of cross-discipline humanities studies collaborations between humanities and science disciplines. They offer case studies of how integrating content and methods from the humanities and sciences has resulted in new areas of investigation, such as historical archeology, psycholinguistics, and some fields of genetics.

Similarly, humanities approaches can deepen understanding of how scientific concepts play out in the world outside the classroom or museum.Pedretti (2004) has shown how a focus on critical issues can introduce scientific content in a way that personalizes the subject matter, thereby “evoking emotion, stimulating dialog and debate, and promoting reflexivity.” In a similar vein, Story Collider offers podcasts, videos, live shows, and a magazine featuring stories about people’s experiences of science. One of its founders, Ben Lillie, has written that Story Collider explores how our understanding and practice of science shapes who we are individually and collectively (cite needed).


There has been an active discussion in the learning community about the integration of arts learning approaches into STEM education, transforming STEM learning to STEAM learning and adding “Arts” to the popular acronym. Much as the humanities can enhance scientists’ collection of investigational and interpretive tools, proponents argue that arts can provide ways for both scientists and laypeople to stretch their understanding of diverse concepts and phenomena and generate creative, innovative solutions to persistent challenges. (cite)

Some practitioners believe that STEAM approaches to science and technology learning are bolstered by arguments that the arts and humanities provide the creative and critical thinking skills workers need in a new economy that emphasizes multidisciplinary pursuits such as biotechnology, green energy, clean technologies, and digital media. (cite) This argument asserts that art-centric skills such as visual thinking; recognizing and forming patterns; modeling; getting a “feel” for systems; and the hand skills learned by using tools, pens, and brushes are all valuable for developing STEM abilities (Root-Bernstein and Root-Bernstein 2011).

The “STEM to STEAM” discourse is newer than conversations about the potential consiliences of humanities and sciences, and thus it is less represented in peer-reviewed scholarship and research. That said, a search of the web turns up a number of less formal case studies, thought pieces, and manifestos about the utility of the arts to scientific learning and thinking.

Examples of STEM to STEAM

One example of the STEM to STEAM approach comes from Tapajos (2003), who examined how discipline-based arts education might help students not only better understand HIV and AIDS, but also provide better care to people with HIV or AIDS. The learning outcomes of his course included greater visual literacy in the arts (students would be able to analyze both the content of the art itself, as well as the historical context in which it was created); create visual art that references HIV/AIDS; and “reflect upon and revise their own values and attitudes in relation to the disease, patients with HIV/AIDS, and caring for those patients.”

The Sing About Science project uses music to teach science content. Its website offers links to research about the utility of music to learning and enhancing memory.

The Breathing City is a collaboration between an urban meteorologist, a designer, and a composer that resulted in “a soundscape composition that explores the relationship between experiential knowledge and data representations, analysis and interpretation of complex dynamic systems within the context of urban climate.”

The University of Central Florida’s New York World’s Fair project uses a simulation of the 1964-65 fair “as an educational tool to expand the understanding of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” This project’s PI is a historian working with new technologies, and the grounding of this intergenerational web experience with a rich societal context has raised the discussion of all ages who experience it.  

The University of California, Davis has for several years had a campus-wide program that teaches science through the creation of public art. The engagement with science comes on two levels: the K-16 students who create the art learn the science content in order to represent it thoughtfully in the public art, and the students, faculty, staff, and visitors who come across the art on campus receive an unexpected and sometimes provocative infusion of science content into their lives, providing them with an opportunity for reflection. Specific projects on campus have included mosaic pillars featuring evolution, genomics, plant-microbe interactions, weeds, and food and farming; a number of art exhibits that explicitly link art and science; and courses in which undergraduate students produce science-themed public art. In addition to this Art-Science Fusion program, the campus recently launched its GATEways program, whose mission is “to demonstrate —in teaching landscapes, exhibits, and displays—some of the important ideas and complex issues UC Davis scholars are tackling.”

The Art of Science Learning conference generated a list of arts-based or arts-inspired science teaching strategies, including songwriting, architecture, theatrical pieces, and data visualization.

In San Francisco, evaluation of KQED Public Media’s QUEST science, environment and nature series showed that viewers and listeners more interested in the arts than in science would engage with science content when an element of the arts was brought in, such as a nature photography contest (Bandy & Fung, 2009).

Directions for Future Research 

Research into the relationship of the arts and STEM learning is in its earliest days.  There are many practices, from scientific visualization to making/tinkering where there are vital and dynamic communities exploring this relationship, and ways of assessing the impact of arts practices on science learning.

On the other hand, the humanities and the sciences have a long history of interaction, which have been enriched over the last several decades by the broadening of science learning to include practices of other cultures. The humanities adds the necessary social context, for example, to understand how the practice of science learning differs in various societies, subgroups, even family units. As we empower our audiences to grow with their emerging science literacy, we should be modeling how that literacy fits into their world.


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Bandy, E. & Fung, M. (2009). KQED QUEST final evaluation report. San Francisco: Rockman et al. Retrieved January 27, 2012 from

Bechtel, W. and Hamilton, A. (2007) Reduction, integration, and the unity of science: natural, behavioral, and social sciences and the humanities. Pre-publication version of chapter from General Philosophy of Science: Focal Issues, ed. Kuipers, T. New York: Elsevier. Retrieved from

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Wershof Schwartz, A., Abramson, J. S., Wojnowich, I., Accordino, R., Ronan, E. J., Rifkin, M. R. (2009). Evaluating the impact of the humanities in medical education. Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine 76(4), 372-380. Retrieved from

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