On Finding Future Engineers in the Art Classroom

Did you ever think that learning how to solve engineering problems could begin in an art classroom? Have you ever thought about the commonalities engineering and the visual arts share? If not, please consider this.

Robert Sabol is a professor of visual and performing arts at Purdue and chair of the Department of Art and Design. He is the current president-elect of the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and an NAEA Distinguished Fellow. He is the recipient of the Manual Barkan Memorial Award for Exemplary Research in Art Education and twice received the Patti and Rusty Rueff School of Visual and Performing Arts Excellence in Teaching Award.

The field of engineering is concerned with the application of scientific knowledge to understand problems and create unique solutions to solve them. In order to solve problems, engineers must access the creative and imaginative reaches of their mentalities. In a very real sense, they become “artists” by exploring multiple possibilities, redefining problems, expanding their understanding of those problems, and by using materials and processes in creative and inventive ways. In short, they create something that didn’t exist before. They have to be open to a full range of possibilities and accept that the unknown is part of the problem while learning from trials and mistakes. They have to be open to using the unexpected as a workable solution. These are things visual artists do whenever they create a work of art.

In art classrooms, students are not only given permission but encouragement to use their imagination as a source of content. They “learn to see.” They are taught to tolerate ambiguity, explore what is unknown, create multiple solutions to problems, and evaluate products free from the confines of convention. They depend upon an array of mental habits including observing, envisioning, innovating, and reflecting, not generally emphasized elsewhere in schools. They are dependent upon their creativity and higher-order thinking skills involving comprehension, application, analysis, problem identification, synthesis of knowledge and evaluation of the products of creation. These processes may sound surprisingly familiar to any engineer. Studies have demonstrated positive relationships between increased standardized test performances and students who are engaged in art classes. Although it probably has never been studied, it is equally likely that engineers who are engaged in the visual arts may produce better solutions to engineering problems.

Perhaps you’ve never thought of yourself as an artist and maybe you’ve never considered how much engineering and the visual arts have in common, but perhaps you should. If you wonder from where the next generation of engineers will come, look in the art classroom. When you look at works of art, consider the quality of their engineering, and the next time the rest of us view the products of engineers, we will consider their merits as works of art.