Articulate Minds and Hands

Written by Charles James

There is a saying that if you put four scientists in a room, you are sure to have a musical quartet. Some of the most accomplished musicians I know are also avid scientists. What is the connection between the arts and the brain? Albert Einstein had his violin, Richard Fenynman had his bongos, and Robert Hazen has his trumpet. There is a research report by Michigan State University psychologist showing that most Nobel Prize winning scientists and members of the National Academies of Science have arts related hobbies. Perhaps our scientific side is nourished and animated by the expressive side that the arts encourage. If there is such a link, design technology is perhaps the best hope education has of linking these two worlds because exploring materials, crafting, and constructing actually rewire the brain’s circuitry. We have yet to discover whether science rewires the brain toward the arts or whether the arts expand our scientific thinking, but the link between the pairing is mutually beneficial.

According to Ronald Kotulak in his 1996 book Inside the Brain, an enriched environment that includes the visual arts can contribute to a 25% increase in the number of brain’s neural connections both early and later in life. In fact, it seems that the environment actually changes the brain — no matter the subject matter. Frank R. Wilson in his book, The Hand, contends that the environment simultaneously shaped and formed both the brain and the arm. He says, “As one changed, so did the other into the articulate mind and hands we have today.” If environment is so crucial to what Wilson calls the “hand-thought nexus,” then shouldn’t we be incorporating the best principles for shaping the environments our students experience? And what are some of those principles?

Brain research suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat. The brain needs some challenge, or problems that generate stress sufficient to activate learning. Too much stress and the body’s atavistic responses take over. Too little stress and our brain becomes a spectator. “Relaxed-alertness” is one way scientists describe the balance. This means designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also have the capacity to engage and excite.

Whatever design challenge is presented, the challenge requires an environment that activates and sustains involvement. Thanks to the emergence of communication, visualization, and simulation technologies, students begin to appreciate the interpersonal, authentic, and cognitive side of learning that real practitioners apply to their work. Students learn to think and build like engineers. Learning becomes as much concrete as it is abstract, and as much cognitive as it is exploratory. Thanks to design technology (the premise for solving problems and crafting solutions) the act of design encompasses the flashes of insight that links mind, eyes, and hands. It is the dynamism of using an individual’s cognitive power to solve environmental problems, design buildings, or build models. When allowed to design and problem solve using our hands, the brain creates coherency and meaning.

Creating design challenges in our curricula is as much about space as it is about program. Aligning our learning environments and our programs requires that we think differently about where and how students learn. It takes place in a context of relevance and offers students just what they need to acquire the knowledge, the skills, and the tools to demonstrate all of their ingenious ideas. Next month’s blog will consider the ways schools create physical spaces for change.

So does the artist become the scientist or do scientists simply have a neural affinity to the arts? Whatever the answer, it is clear that in science, it is often the arts that link the mind’s challenge to the hand’s engagement. Whether the learning activity results in a business plan, a museum exhibit, a set of design specifications for a city park, an electric game, an animated short film, or a model solar race car, the design problem is where the arts meet the sciences. That is the place where the articulate hand helps grow an articulate mind.

Ⓒ Charles C. James 2018

About the Author:

Charles (Chuck) James is an educator and curriculum development specialist in science and design education. Chuck’s experience education spans three decades and includes work as Director of Education and Public Outreach for the NASA’s Astrobiology Division and Carnegie Institution’s CASE program. His instructional work in design, technology, and innovation, includes creating curricula for The National Science Foundation, NASA, The American Geologic Institute, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the American Chemical Society. He is a Director of St. Andrew’s D! Lab and faculty member at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning in Potomac, Maryland.