Add some heat to water and you get steam, right? Now, there’s a different kind of heat stirred solely by the first letter in our alphabet.

In recent times, we’re used to advocacy for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and pursuits. A growing trend to add arts to the acronym — making it STEAM — has stirred cultural biases.

The different way we treat science and math as compared to the arts emerges early in our lives. We assign them different sides of the brain, even gender proclivity in an urge to compartmentalize humanity.

How true is this? Are math and sciences harder, practical more “male” while the arts are softer, fanciful, more “female?” Do they work in opposition?

Only if an incomplete brain is your goal. Decades of studies like those recently published in “Education Next” and “Educational Researcher” show students exposed to museums and performing arts centers show enhanced empathy, memory and critical thinking skills.

Plato believed all children should learn music, physics and philosophy because “the patterns in music and all the arts are the key to learning.” In a 2014 article in Education Week, Mobile County Public School System teacher and former Alabama State Teacher of the Year Anne Jolly argued any resistance to the new combination from either arts or math/science proponents is shortsighted.

“When push comes to shove, it’s not STEM versus STEAM — it’s about making every student a fully literate 21st century citizen,” Jolly wrote.

Alabama School of Math and Science art teacher Orren Kickliter mentioned in conversation he believes the link between art and science stems from both realms’ “intellectual basis.” One of his colleagues sees corollaries firsthand.

ASMS teacher Sarah Brewer holds degrees in both fine arts and mathematics and teaches a class that integrates them. She readily sees creativity and calculation in both.

“If one has visual arts training, a science problem is benefited by an amazing ability to visualize the issue, both as a tool for solving it and as a tool for communicating your findings to others. Many problems in chemistry, biology and physics are geometric in nature, and others are topological — both mathematical fields roughly dealing with the shape of space,” Brewer said.

She acknowledged the majority of grants for arts and sciences go toward education and medicine rather than purely creative ideas. Monetization takes priority.

“There’s a reason the great Renaissance thinkers tended to be artists, mathematicians, scientists and philosophers rolled into one since society allowed them to be creative. The more creatives can understand the fundamentals of other creative disciplines, the more informed our experiments are and the more likely we are to come up with something truly new and profound,” Brewer said.

University of South Alabama physics professor Albert Gapud is the son of an art historian and an entomologist so he understands the complementary relationship between the arts and sciences. He values his father’s lessons on Galileo and Darwin as much as his mother’s tutelage in Michelangelo and Beethoven.

“To me, the main reason science and art are symbiotic is one could simply not exist without the other. One lesson I try to impart to my students is science has moved forward not so much from logic but from human creativity. The people who expanded the frontiers of science — like Einstein, Galileo, Newton — could not have done so without thinking ‘outside the box,’” Gapud said.

USA art instructor Rene Culler pointed to the union of math and aesthetics found in the natural world with the Fibonacci sequence. She said artists often reinvent proportions, color combinations and abstract laws of the natural world.

“As a maker of blown glass and sculpture, true understanding of the material requires knowledge of physics, chemistry and thermodynamics, a variety of sciences to make the art. The origin of the word ‘science’ is ‘to know.’ But what is art? We know in many ways,” Culler said.

Culler’s USA arts and glass lab colleague Rachel Wright is another child of science. Her father was an engineer who worked in the space program.

“The time artists spend in the studio is research: we ask ourselves questions, and seek to answer those questions through working, putting disparate things together, viewing them from different angles, always experimenting and testing the waters,” Wright said.
She finds the level of inquiry and curiosity comparable in both realms. She also nodded to the creativity required for any discovery.

“I frequently feel like a mad scientist or an alchemist — the original scientists! — by mixing up different combinations of material, and the exhilaration of not being certain what exactly will come out of it,” the glass artist said.

In a broader sense, arts and science share something more profound. They’re truly callings since you’re unlikely to be wealthy or powerful in either vocation.

However, neither arts nor science seeks personal gain by sowing pettiness or entrenching division among humanity, either. If anything, their goals are ultimately unifying and universal.

Science is an attempt to know the mechanisms of existence while art is the attempt to express the experience of that same existence. The promise they hold is liberation and understanding.