Do arts for kids launch STEM success later?

The study participants reported using artistic skills—such as analogies, playing, intuition, and imagination—to solve complex problems. (Credit: KnoxvilleMuseum of Art/Flickr)

A new study links childhood participation in the arts with the number of new patents or businesses of adults with STEM degrees.

The researchers studied a group of Michigan State University Honors College graduates from 1990 to 1995 who majored in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, or STEM. They find of that group, those who own businesses or patents received up to eight times more exposure to the arts as children than the general public.

In the study, which appears in Economic Development Quarterly, the researchers define “childhood” as up to 14 years old.


“The most interesting finding was the importance of sustained participation in those activities,” says Rex LaMore, director of Michigan State’s Center for Community and Economic Development.

“If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you’re more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed, or articles published. And that was something we were surprised to discover.”

STEM musicians

Musical training seems to be important. The researchers found 93 percent of the STEM graduates reported musical training at some point in their lives, as compared to only 34 percent of average adults, as reported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The STEM graduates also reported higher-than-average involvement in the visual arts, acting, dance, and creative writing.

In addition, those who had been exposed to metal work and electronics during childhood were 42 percent more likely to own a patent than those without exposure, while those involved in architecture were 87.5 percent more likely to form a company. And children with a photography background were 30 percent more likely to have a patent.

Useful skills

Such activity fosters out-of-the-box thinking, the researchers say. In fact, the group reported using artistic skills—such as analogies, playing, intuition, and imagination—to solve complex problems.

“The skills you learn from taking things apart and putting them back together translate into how you look at a product and how it can be improved,” says Eileen Roraback of the Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities.

“And there’s creative writing. In our study, a biologist working in the cancer field, who created a business, said her writing skills helped her to write business plans and win competitions.”

The results of the study could be crucial to rebuilding the US economy, the researchers say.

“Inventors are more likely to create high-growth, high-paying jobs in our state, and that’s the kind of target we think we should be looking for,” LaMore says. “So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity, so that we have these outcomes.”

Source: Michigan State University