Roundtable: The impact of combining arts and science, with Ubongo

STEAM is gaining ever more traction within education. But what are the benefits of arts/science cross-fertilisation, and is UK education going in the right direction? Steve Wright quizzes Doreen Kessy

The third in our series on STEAM, we speak to Doreen Kessy, chief business officer at Ubongo

Q. What benefits can an arts education provide for more technical career paths?

Arts help young people to develop their creativity, confidence and divergent thinking, skills that are increasingly critical in technical careers – and in all careers, for that matter. 

Art also gives them space to express themselves and to explore life beyond purely academic disciplines. 

And, of course, there are so many career paths these days that combine artistic and technical skills. Here at Ubongo, most of our team use a mix of these skills – from writers who draft screenplays about science, to animators who use advanced software to develop beautiful graphics.

Q. How key a skill will creativity be in future job markets?

With increasing automation, routine tasks are being done by computers and machines. The jobs that remain available to – and must be performed by – humans will be those requiring creativity and skills that cannot easily be automated.

Q. And how much of the onus is on the arts, specifically, to nurture this creativity?

Well, part of the problem is that we make too much of a distinction between areas and subjects. So rather than saying that the onus is on the arts to nurture creativity, I would say that the onus is on us to incorporate arts and creative thinking across all areas of education. If we truly value creativity and want to nurture it, we need to be more creative in the way that we teach and support kids to learn.

Here in Africa, very strong lines are drawn between subjects, but at Ubongo we use our programmes to blur those lines. For instance, our Ubongo Kids episode that teaches the physics of sound follows the story of a music competition. Elsewhere, in Akili and Me we teach early numeracy to an accompaniment of vibrant animations and music. 

Q. What about the benefits in the opposite direction: how can technical subjects such as maths and physics help inform the arts?

 Again, there are so many areas of crossover. These days, many forms of art are created using fairly advanced technical tools and skills. I guess you could say that’s been true for a very long time – Leonardo could not have painted the Mona Lisa without a deep understanding of the physics of light and biology of visual perception.

We truly do students a disservice when we force them to pick between ‘the arts’ and ‘technical’ subjects. I was lucky enough to be able to pursue dual degrees in the arts (film) and sciences (biology), and I’ve built a career through combining the two.

Examples are everywhere. Music is sine waves. Photography is a manifestation of the physics of light. And new advances in technology, from virtual reality to big data, are allowing us to stretch our creativity even further to create new kinds of art.

Q. How are educators and innovators embracing a mix of science and art in order to develop soft skills such as empathy and ethics?

By mixing science/tech, arts and character development, we can help kids learn in an environment that more closely mimics what they’ll face in their adult lives, and give them the skills and agency to find their own way in a rapidly changing world. We know that character strengths like growth mindset, grit and emotional intelligence are just as important as IQ when it comes to ensuring positive life outcomes. Bringing arts and technical subjects together creates opportunities for students to exercise all these crucial extra-curricular strengths, while also developing their academic skills.

Arts add ambiguity and nuance into technical subjects, while science and technology can tie art back to practical applications. Projects that combine these two sets of disciplines help students to develop, both academically and more generally, as they deal with challenges and ambiguities that they would not be finding in the study of one single subject.

Q. What more can schools and universities do to maximise this cross-fertilisation between the arts and the sciences? And what more can governments and tech companies do to help here?

To be honest, where we work there is almost no integration or cross-fertilization between the arts and sciences in formal schooling. So we’re working to help kids integrate them with supplementary resources like our TV shows, books and apps, which present STEM subjects through artistic forms.

With the current focus in education on memorisation-based exams and testing, it’s hard to make a case for this cross-subject integration at the moment. So a great first step would be to encourage more project-based work and assessment, and to lessen the emphasis on rote memorisation and testing.

Q. What initiatives (e.g. the BBC micro:bit) have gained traction so far in the movement towards arts and science integration?

There are some great programmes in Africa that are picking up STEAM (pun intended)! We love the Dageno Girls School in Northern Tanzania, which supports girls to do STEAM projects and human-centred design. And there’s FundiBots, which brings robotics to Ugandan schools. In tertiary education there are some great programmes like the African Digital Media Academy in Rwanda, which teach both technical and artistic skills.

And if you want a good argument for integrating arts and science to enhance student motivation, then check out our cartoon Ubongo Kids. We get millions of kids each weekend excited to learn everything from algebra to plant science to DIY engineering, via some beautiful, musical cartoons.

Further reading