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In the era of generative AI and digital media making, STEM needs to add arts education and evolve into STEAM--for all students' benefits.

3 reasons creativity is essential for the future of education

In the era of generative AI and digital media making, STEM needs to add art and evolve into STEAM

Key points:

I like to say I was raised by a combination of nonprofits and the arts. At 15 years old, I moved into Mercy Home for Boys and Girls, a nonprofit group home in Chicago, and attended an independent arts high school in Illinois, a unique model where there was a minimum requirement of three hours of art a day.

I’d leave in the late afternoon and walk to my after-school arts program, The Marwen Foundation in Chicago, where I practiced digital art making – including photography, design, or other creative tracks – until late into the evening.

The Marwen Foundation paved the way for my future – it was the reason I went to New York to look at art schools, as part of their Artwork Bound program. They granted me a $10,000 scholarship to go to art school freshman year and helped me get my first paid design internship at Motorola. I’ve since served in several creative leadership positions, including my current role as Chief Creative Officer for YR Media, which is a full circle moment, as the organization is a nonprofit focusing on media and the arts, including design and music. Creative expression has provided me an outlet when I needed it, fostered my growth and development, and ultimately, paved my career path.

My story is not an outlier. The benefits of creative expression and arts in education on both student well-being and academic achievement are clear. According to sources, “students with access to arts education are five times less likely to drop out of school, four times more likely to be recognized for academic achievement, and four times more likely to receive a bachelor’s degree.

Yet despite all the evidence of the critical role of arts education and the efforts by the federal government to ensure its integration in public schools, new data from the Arts Education Data Project (AEDP) from September 2022 shows that more than 3.6 million children who attend public school in the U.S. do not have access to music education, and nearly 2.1 million students do not have access to any arts education (defined as dance, music, theater, or visual arts).

As STEM has risen in prominence over the past decade, arts education has yet to achieve the same recognition and integration. In order to provide a rich, robust, and inclusive curriculum for youth, STEM needs to evolve to STEAM. And in many ways, that transition is already taking place as technology and engineering drive the next wave of art and creative expression. You can’t have one without the other.

 Art skills are integral in digital media production

As our digital world encompasses new storytelling mediums across design, audio engineering, music production, digital art, and more, new unique skill sets are required to prepare young people for careers of the future. STEAM education principles need to become embedded into media production, music production, and graphic design to enable the next wave of innovation and creativity needed for these major technological shifts.

Digital media-making and music production are highly creative fields that require myriad artistic skills. For media production, individuals need to marry storytelling and visual and sound design to create engaging media content to communicate messages effectively. For music production, composition, arrangement, and sound design are key, because these skills create unique and engaging music that resonates and evokes feelings. Graphic design is rooted in the arts, incorporating design elements such as color, typography, composition, and imagery. Graphic designers must have a strong understanding of these design elements and principles to create visually appealing and effective designs.

Creativity cannot be replaced by AI

Generative AI is making headlines as a threat that could replace digital media making. Instead, it should be seen by creators as a tool to be explored and used, much like any technological advancements over the past 100 years that at least initially caused the public to question the role of artists and creators. In a globalized world where creatives are still impacted from the pandemic’s forced isolation, generative AI bots can serve as thought partners.

Media production has become an essential part of almost every commercial business, and generative AI can successfully be used to help communicate creative concepts to non-creative counterparts. A common practice taught in virtually every art school is the importance of ideation and iteration. For example, graphic design students are taught that for every logo, they must produce 100 to 200 sketches. The concept now is not that we must draw 100 sketches, but more that we must explore and see 100 versions–something generative AI can assist in accomplishing for any designer.

It’s important to note that creativity is the irreplaceable human element in these domains. Tools have evolved and will continue to evolve. The principles of design, music, and art are what do not change. The difference between image making and art is that art centers itself around creative expression. It is the artist’s critique or interpretation of its surroundings, and digital media-making enables different outlets for creative expression.

Art levels the playing field in education

Art and creativity are an integral part of STEAM education, especially for underrepresented communities. The majority of students who do not currently have access to arts education are Black, Hispanic, or Native American, and are from low-income households. These are the very students who would benefit most from the “educational, cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits” of arts education in order to develop the creativity, confidence, and problem-solving capabilities needed throughout life. The lack of arts education for those who need it most compounds and reinforces a more systemic inequality–for a generation of children already disadvantaged from issues like racism, bias, and comparative lack of generational wealth, inequity in education further widens the gap. In addition to academic success, arts provide an essential outlet to grapple with the effects of systemic racism, exacerbated by the pandemic and remote learning.

In recent years, more efforts have been made at a federal level to recognize music and arts education as an essential part of educational curriculum and child development, including the passing of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

For a child of immigrants who was raised in Chicago’s under-resourced Southwest side, I was pretty lucky. I attended a public elementary school that seemed to draw in resources unseen in the surrounding areas by keeping up test scores, which was done by elevating creativity and the arts. Whether it was Mexican Ballet Folklorico, after school painting with artists in residence, or music and dance workshops that taught students how to focus creativity, I always saw creative expression as an integral part of doing anything in life.

Fostering a mentality in which art and creative expression are a part of everything I do has allowed me to approach every problem, obstacle, and challenge with the principles of the creative process.

Since the beginning of humankind, creative expression has served as a means of storytelling, articulating our thoughts and feelings and merging our inner and outer worlds. As we integrate creative expression and arts education into curriculums nationwide for young people, we provide the ability to build confidence, hone problem-solving capabilities, and inspire growth for those who need it most. As bell hooks so aptly pointed out, “The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is – it’s to imagine what is possible.”

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