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“Putting the A into STEM: Ensuring Arts and Science-based knowledge across the disciplines” (Professor James Arvanitakis (Western Sydney University); Fulbright Fellow: Milward L. Simpson; Visiting Professor – University of Wyoming

Putting the A into STEM: Ensuring Arts and Science based knowledge across the disciplines
Professor James Arvanitakis (Western Sydney University)
Fulbright Fellow: Milward L. Simpson Visiting Professor – University of Wyoming

Creativity and repetition
In one of the most talked about TED presentations originally delivered in 2007, educator Sir Ken Robinson, makes an astonishing claim: that education systems essentially crush creativity.


Robinson’s (2017) claims revolve around the idea that education systems regiment, homogenise, and order education to the point that we, as educators, produce students who are rewarded for producing materials that are standardise and punished for anything creative.

While there are many who have disputed Robinson’s claims – see for example Scott Goodman’s (2010) detailed rebuttal – there are at least two important points that we should glean from Robinson’s arguments.

The first is that education systems too often neatly separate disciplinary areas into neat divisions. The most obvious of these is the clear divide between the ‘arts and social sciences’ and the ‘hard sciences’ of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Students tend to be encouraged to focus in on one or the other: if they are talented in mathematics, there is a tendency to place them in a hard science stream. In contrast, those with an artistic flair or a love of the artistic world are nudged towards the creative fields – though we do hear many stories of young people forced into a direction to meet their parent’s wishes.

The second important point from Ken Robinson is that as a student journeys through the education system, they tend to learn a ‘code’ by which to progress. One example within a university setting is that students quickly learn what is expected from a ‘standard essay’. This happens through repetition: in Australia, an average of eight subjects a year for a three-year degree includes at least two essays per subject – that is, 48 essays.

In such an environment, a student quickly learns what is expected and reproduces this over and over again. There is no doubt that their skills improve: they become better researchers, writers and more advanced in their application of theory. What they do not gain, however, are more entrepreneurial insights to produce different or creative works.

It is here that Robinson is correct: through repetition and division, creativity suffers.

Confronting disciplinary divides
History is filled with those that have crossed this false divide between arts and science. We need to look no further than Leonardo da Vinci who was driven by a passionate curiosity to study a cross section of scientific fields—human anatomy, engineering, astronomy – while producing some of the Western canon’s most iconic works including the Mona Lisa (1503–19) and The Last Supper (1495–98) – see Isaacson (2018).

There is also Santiago Ramón y Cajal, often referred to as the ‘father’ of contemporary neuroscience who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1906 (shared with Camillo Golgi) for work on the nervous system and whose ink drawings continue to capture the attention of the artistic world (Smith 2018). More contemporary artists such as Anicka Yi whose work uses art to explore the reaction of our senses and lies at the intersection of fragrance, cuisine and science (Cannon, K and Custodio 2019). In his 2016 book, The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Brown University physics Professor Stephon Alexander uses music to shed light on some of the deepest mysteries in cosmology.

It is from this perspective that I have aimed to challenge both our students and the faculty I work with to confront those disciplinary boundaries in the education journey.

There is little doubt that we as researchers and educators need disciplinary home for it allows us to understand the very foundations of our work. Such a home means we know what journals to read and conferences to attend to keep in touch with developments and ensure our work does not become stale. Just as education at its best makes our students a little ‘uncomfortable’ and can create a sense of dissonance, so should we be prepared to challenge ourselves to move beyond our disciplinary homes.

It was from this perspective that I challenged a number of colleagues to design and establish two successful programs at Western Sydney University. The first was The Academy at Western Sydney aimed at high performing undergraduate students and the second, the Master of Research – the University’s preferred pathway to entering our PhD program.

The Academy at Western Sydney is best thought of as an Honours College, It was established as part of an pedagogical drive to introduce the ‘citizen scholar’ program into the undergraduate curriculum: that is, to ensure our graduates are not only world class scholars, but also have the skills and attributes to be engaged and empowered citizens of their communities (Kourtis and Arvanitakis 2016). Designing the program brought together a cross-section of stakeholders (including current students, alumni, business leaders, members of the armed services and community-based organisations) as well as faculty from across the disciplines (including law, medicine, the arts and astronomy).

While the program itself has been highly successful for our students – winning a number of education excellence awards – it was the impact on the faculty that was also profound. As faculty, we attended both art appreciation courses (including at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art and time in various laboratories). This challenged us to reflect on our own limitations and boundaries and encouraged us to look elsewhere for inspiration. On my own journey, I have combined my research as a cultural theorist with that of Professor Andrew Francis (a mathematician) and Professor Oliver Obst (a computer scientist) to delve into the world of data politics and data ethics (see Arvanitakis, Obst and Frances 2018).

More recently, the establishment of the Master of Research has challenged our graduate students to experience the world of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics). The Master of Research – or MRes – is a two-year Master’s program focused on both preparing candidates for their PhD journey and teaching high-end research skills in a changing job market that is attracted by such proficiencies.

The program is designed to two stages. The first stage is focused on a series of subjects that are split between disciplinary focussed subjects and three cross-disciplinary skills that bring students from across the university together. These subjects are focused on the history and philosophy of science and knowledge, knowledge translation, research impact, science communication and understanding different disciplinary traditions. In this way, a nursing student sits with those who are on the journey to become chemists, philosophers, musicians, art theorists, lawyers, biologists as well as many others, to discuss and debate different perspectives. Armed with such skills, the students enter Stage 2 of their journey – entering their research year.

Despite a number of faculty members remaining resistant – saying to me that they want their students to spend more time in their ‘lab’ or writing music – the emerging evidence is that students from across the disciplines are benefitting. We are finding that they are much better prepared for their research journeys, become more creative, robust, impactful, communicative and informed researchers.

As such, the ‘A’ that we introduce into STEM education to give us STEAM, creates a two-way flow of learning: both for arts-based and science students. They learn from each other and learn to communicate in ways that makes them more impactful scholars and citizens – ensuring that they will benefit personally as well as being more likely to have a positive impact across the community.

Looking ahead
There are two important trends that university educators and administrators must confront head on. The first is the focus of a McKinsey and Company (2019) report that looks at the future of work and the way we must prepare work forces of the future to be prepared for major disruption. The second is the increasing accountability of the university sector by the broader public to ensure our institutions are beneficial to our many stakeholders (Arvanitakis et al 2019).

To achieve this, we must produce graduates who are prepared to confront the many grand challenges we are currently facing: from climate change, to a loss of trust in expert systems and the rise of extremism. An education that is driven by a sense of curiosity, passion, creativity and entrepreneurship based on strong disciplinary foundations but also open to working across knowledge systems, is one that is mandatory to meet these challenges. Anything less means we are likely to let down our graduates, communities and future generations.



Alexander, S. (2016) The Jazz of Physics: The Secret Link Between Music and the Structure of the Universe, Basic Books, New York.

Arvanitakis, J. et al (eds), 2019, Teaching and Learning in Higher Education in India and Australia, Taylor and Frances, London.

Arvanitakis, J. Obst, O. and Francis, A. 2018, Data ethics is more than just what we do with data, it’s also about who’s doing it, The Conversation, 22 June 2018

Cannon, K and Custodio I. (2019) “Anicka Yi”, MOMA Magazine, sourced from – accessed December 2019.

Goodman, S. (2010) Ken Robinson Rebuttal, Ed Tech Now, sourced from – accessed December 2019.

Isaacson, W. (2018) Leonardo da Vinci, Simon & Schuster, Sydney, Australia.

Kourtis, A. and Arvanitakis, J. (2016), “The Academy at Western Sydney University”, Chapter 5 in Arvanitakis, J. and Hornsby (eds.), 2016, The Citizen Scholar and the Future of Higher Education, Palgrave, London.

McKinsey and Company (2019) Future of Work, sourced from – accessed December 2019.

Robinson, K. (2017) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, Capstone Publishing, Essex UK

Smith, R. (2018) “A Deep Dive Into the Brain, Hand-Drawn by the Father of Neuroscience”, New York Times, 18 January 2018, sourced from – accessed December 2019.