The Arts Effect

Adding the arts to STEM education can make these disciplines more attractive to women from an early age.

It’s no secret that job opportunities abound in the fast-growing STEM industries, making these fields a pathway to greater economic opportunities for women, their families and their communities. However, a 2018 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center found that while employment in STEM occupations, since 1990, has outpaced overall U.S. job growth, women still remain underrepresented in several key STEM fields. STEM is the acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Expanding the concept of STEM subjects by adding the arts—what’s known as STEAM education—can make these disciplines more attractive to women from an early age, says educator Ruth Catchen. She leads Enhancing STEM: Exploring the Arts Effect, which develops curriculum for STEAM education.

“Women are nurturers—they want to feel they are doing something good for society, for the world. So, we have to show them that doing good is a piece of STEM,” says Catchen.

“Girls tend to shy away from STEM as they don’t connect immediately with these fields as something to help others,” she continues. “By opening the door through the arts, girls may discover how interesting the world is and how much they can do through discovery to make it better, which is what science is about. For instance, by making things to solve a problem—engineering—they improve the world. Showing them this through the arts allows them to be creative, try things that are accessible to them and open the doors to more complex academic content.”

The Pew study echoes Catchen’s views, finding that while women make up a full 75 percent of health care practitioners and technicians, they remain underrepresented in engineering (14 percent), computer (25 percent) and physical science (39 percent) occupations.

Catchen, who holds a master’s degree in music in vocal performance, has been on stage with opera companies and orchestras throughout the United States. She later turned her attention to education and, in 2007, received her second master’s degree from the University of Colorado Colorado Springs in Curriculum and Instruction. She is currently the artist-in-residence at Jack Swigert Aerospace Academy in Colorado Springs, which works to improve student and teacher proficiency in STEAM.

“If students create art from what they see under a microscope, for instance, they may get interested in ways to solve health problems and create a vaccine or medicine,” says Catchen. “If they learn about what it takes to live in outer space by designing a space suit, they may want to pursue a career in engineering.”

Catchen believes that STEAM education can be valuable not only to students but also to employers who hire workers with the flexibility and open-mindedness that this approach fosters.

“Someone with a STEAM background might try more things, have more ideas, think more creatively,” she says. “They might be better communicators, better team players. All these qualities would be beneficial to an employer. It’s difficult to quantify qualities like critical thinking or creativity or being more willing to take risks, but I can tell you from observation that these are all attributes that a STEAM approach develops in students.”

Approaching STEM through the arts can also help women understand that it’s good to try different approaches to solving problems and that it’s all right to fail, notes Catchen.

“A lot of young girls are told that they need to be perfect, that they have to meet other people’s needs,” she says. “We don’t tell them that trial and error is how we learn, that it’s okay to brainstorm and throw out 10 or 15 ideas on how to approach a problem, even if half of them are ridiculous. The arts can help develop that kind of mind-set, so women know that it’s better to try and see what happens than not to try.”

STEAM courses, which are aimed primarily at students in elementary and middle schools, have become more widespread in the United States in recent years, says Catchen. She notes that over time, this may help address misconceptions that keep women from pursuing STEM careers.

“Sometimes, girls who like artistic things, who are creative, may turn away from science because they picture a brainy-looking person in a lab coat,” she says. “But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of this is about breaking down stereotypes.”

Today’s fast-changing world requires that people learn how to adapt to new challenges throughout their careers. “If you don’t have problem-solving skills, creativity and critical thinking, you’re not going to succeed in today’s world,” says Catchen. “The arts can help women with this.”


Steve Fox is a freelance writer, former newspaper publisher and reporter based in Ventura, California.