[OPINION] Artscience Enriches STEM Education: Inspiring Idealism, Embracing Realities

By Prof. Dr. Sithi Vinayakam Muniandy

The term ‘artscience’ was introduced by Todd Siler in his 1997 book “Breaking the Mind Barrier”. Artscience can be interpreted as the third stream that complements the existing STEM+Art and STEAM education movement.

Artscience motivates the understanding of the human experience of nature and society through the synthesis of artistic and scientific modes of exploration and expression. Richer interpretation emerges from the fusion of skills between artists, designers and scientists, with no restriction on art forms or on science branches.

On the other hand, artscience transcends and integrates all disciplines or forms of knowledge. The vision of artscience is the re-humanization of all knowledge. One can trace the DNA of artscience thinking in major artistic advances, technological breakthroughs, scientific discoveries and medical innovations since the beginning of civilization. A renaissance man or woman had artscience underlying his/her creative processes.

In short, artscience aims to inspire open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity, imagination, critical thinking and problem-solving through the seamless fusion of science and art to bring out the best of both.

The Learning Enrichment (LearnX) committee at the Department of Physics, Universiti Malaya has been advocating the fusion of art and creative thinking in the otherwise conventional physics coursework’s activities. There are numerous events that have led to the revolutionary shift in scientific thinking and the history-biography of the main characters are often turned into popular culture.

Some early examples lacked or were misinterpreted in their scientific contents. Recent examples of science-based movies, however, are soliciting experts to ensure the scientific correctness of the narratives.

LearnX is experimenting with artscience activities with broad skill development and deep learning footprints by promoting archival-based historical and scientific narratives. Given such enormous historical records from different parts of the world and time, what LearnX has uncovered is just the tip of the human historical iceberg.

The first example of artscience activity was carried out by a group of 15 second-year physics students taking the Statistical Physics course at the Department of Physics, Universiti Malaya, in the year 2016. As part of a coursework continuous assessment assignment, the students were challenged to showcase their artistic talents by writing, producing and performing a physics-themed theater piece called ‘ATOMYSTIC’.

The 45-minute theater performance in full 19th century styled wardrobe and stage ambience re-enacted the trails of events leading to the intense Lubeck meeting debate (1895) between the atomists led by Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) against his critics (Ostwald, Mach and others) who proposed alternative views based on the concept of energy (energetics).

During the course, the students learned the fundamental contributions of Boltzmann to the understanding of the physical world, including the Boltzmann distribution, the microscopic view of entropy, and the second law of thermodynamics. While working on the theater production, they also learn the motivation of the discovery and the struggle endured by Boltzmann in holding up the theory, which cost him his life.

The students were excited to know that the renowned actor-director, Datuk Zahim Albakri was among the audience, invited to be the theater critic, and were treated to a thumbs up and applause for a brilliant performance by physics-trained first-time theater performers.

Tey Lian Seng, the show director and one of the puppet masters, explaining the significant contributions of the main characters in the historical development of quantum theory.

The second example of artscience activity was carried out in 2018, capturing the debate between the giants of physics, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr on the adequacy of quantum theory in describing physical reality at the microscopic scale. Aptly called the ‘Quantum Debate in Wayang Kulit’, a group of 15 students taking the Statistical Physics course tackled their group-based task by writing a script of multi-character puppets involved in the evolution of ideas.

The students designed the brightly coloured puppets made of polymer plastic and staged the wayang kulit puppet show, receiving applause and laughter in what were then serious debate scenes by scientists in the 1900s. The storyline accurately presented the essence of the 500 pages of the book, “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr, and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality” by Manjit Kumar.

One could not have done better in explaining quantum physics to a broader audience using an alternative medium such as performing art. An appraisal from the renowned Fusion Wayang Kulit co-founder, Mr Tintoy Chuo, proved once again, that art and science can be potent mediums for learning different skills.

Elsewhere around the world, artists and scientists are reinventing their collaboration by using mixed media to raise awareness about various global challenges, such as global warming, environmental, social, and economic issues. Why do we not do it here too?

Emerging out of the COVID-19 movement control and back into face-to-face learning in December 2022, a group of 70 students taking the Statistical Physics course (again, the same course, same lecturer, different students) were asked to champion the climate agenda by relating their chosen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) with poetry.

Puppet masters in action.

In collaboration with the University of Malaya Library, a poem recital program called ‘Baca & Bicara’ was organised at the Perpustakaan Peringatan Za’ba Universiti Malaya. Six student groups braved their stage frights and showcased their heartfelt recitals of their favourite poems, sourced from the UM Library collection. The grey lectures on laws of thermodynamics that govern climate dynamics were translated into an emotionally charged statement of the impact of human activities on life on Earth.

A student reciting the famous poem, “Pulang Si Tenggang” by National Laureate, Prof. Dr Muhammad Haji Salleh.

In summary, artscience activities offer opportunities for creativity, identity-building, self-actualization, cognitive skills, and risk-taking. Participants are encouraged to improvise and experiment in a non-threatening and non-judgmental environment. Such practices help with the appreciation and retention of abstract concepts and activate fine motor skills through kinesthetic, auditory, and visual sensory input.

Students are stimulated to exercise a variety of intelligence, self-expression, and worldviews. Artscience in STEM curriculum and their deeper involvement should be encouraged as it offers opportunities for holistic learning experiences, prolonged creativity, change of perception on abstract concepts, and advocacy in realizing SDGs.

LearnX at the Department of Physics, Universiti Malaya continues to collaborate and experiment with palettes of arts and humanity, rich in colour and emotion, to inculcate humanistic values, while reminding everyone to be aware of the good, the bad, and the ugly paths of scientific discoveries made through sacrifices, comradeship, and even selfishness or injustice. Such stories of human traits are often left out of textbooks or sterilized in journals. In other words, the enrichment of STEM education vis-à-vis artscience is two-fold, i.e. inspired by idealism, yet grounded in realities.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Science Media Centre Malaysia

Dr Sithi V Muniandy is currently a Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Physics Department, University of Malaya. He obtained his DPhil in Mathematics (Oxford, UK), MSc in Theoretical Physics and BSc (Hons.) in Physics) (UKM, Malaysia). Dr Sithi advocates STEM education enriched by passion and purpose through holistic Art+STEM=>SDG learning philosophy, in collaboration with researchers from the Faculty of Creative Art, Museum of Asian Art, and Academy of Malay Studies. He founded the Learning Enrichment Committee (LearnX) at the Department of Physics, University of Malaya which promotes activities that ‘open up the mind, to think out of the box’.

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