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STEAM: In the Mist of Divergent Thinking

My premise is that we are all born with immense natural talents but that too few people discover what they are and even fewer develop them properly. Ironically one of the main reasons for this massive waste of talent is the very process that is meant to develop it: education.– Sir Kenneth Robinson

If you gonna spread Mathematics,… Spread it right!– Wu-Tang Clan


Divergent thinking sits on the opposite side of the ‘logic’ spectrum from convergent thinking. A formal process for discovering multiple solutions, Divergent thinking, is a great procedure for those prone to scientific discovery. Rather than using the process of deduction, divergent thinkers attempt to develop multiple solutions to a problem. However, our education system in the US is built on the logical premises of convergent thinking. In the science and math courses we teach in secondary level schools, students are expected to deduce info down to a single correct answer. ‘Scantron’ sheets, and the companies that make them, have enjoyed the convergent approach to core education. STEM centric school curricula undoubtedly focus on getting to ‘the right answer’. ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, or ‘E’? It should be ironic then that STEM’s deduction process of ‘narrowing in’ down to a single correct answer may not jive with the most successful scientists we’ve produced.

Consider the honorable ‘Plant Doctor’, George Washington Carver. Born a slave in 1864, Mr. Carver is recognized in history, especially during Black History Month, as the father of the peanut and sweet potato. With over 300 innovations for the peanut and 100 with the sweet potato, the infamous scientist, George W. Carver, is a model of divergent thinking!

george-washington-carver-gordon-van-dusenDuring his science career, George was sought after by Booker T. Washington, Henry Ford, and Thomas Edison. Booker T. Washington recruited Mr. Carver to academia at Tuskegee University in pursuit of sustainable inventions for self-sufficiency for freed and former slaves. Henry Ford consulted with Mr. Carver about alternative fuel forms from soybeans. Thomas Edison offered Mr. Carver assistant positions under his personal tutelage. 

The innovator of ‘crop rotation’ was incessantly intent on helping his race rise up from slavery. Legendary Columbia University professor of African-American Studies, Dr. Manning Marable said, “George Washington Carver wanted to turn science into products that benefited black farmers”. Mr. Carver, the first black student at Iowa State University, led a scientist’s career for over 50 years. A noted inventor, botanist, and chemist, George Washington Carver’s life actually necessitates a pause about his propensity toward divergent thinking.

Although infrequently noted, Mr. Carver’s education actually began as an artist! 

In 1890, before his enrollment at Iowa State, George attended Simpson College in Iowa where he studied art and music. At Simpson, he became a standout painter and pianist. In fact, it was per his painting instructor’s recommendation that he went on to study botany at Iowa State. While excelling in painting at Simpson, George developed an affinity for painting plants and nature scenes. 

Picasso once said that all children are born artists: the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. Creativity is not solely to do with the arts or about being an artist, but I believe profoundly that we don’t grow into creativity; we grow out of it. Often we are educated out of it. Creativity is a multi-faceted process. It involves many ordinary abilities and some specialized skills and techniques; it can be fostered by many different ways of thinking, and it draws on critical judgment as well as imagination, intuition and often gut feelings. – Sir Kenneth Robinson in “Out of our Minds” 

George Washington Carver’s ability to discover multiple uses of plants, through the scientific methods, is a testament to divergent thinking. His inclinations for divergent thinking have a lot to teach us about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, and Math) vs. STEM (STEAM minus the ARTS). Our education policy makers should be studying the historical successes of America’s innovators and the backgrounds that contributed to them. 

..track records ranks us with the exceptional extreme complex physics, high technical/ The truth is usually seen and rarely heard. What’s more dangerous than hatred is the word.. – GZA/ Genius of Wu-Tang Clan




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