The stereotype of the scientist is having little creativity and knowledge that is 'a mile deep and a yard wide.'

Not so, according to a new paper which found that successful entrepreneurs and patent holders were also 8X as likely as other people to have participated in arts and crafts when they were children. The researchers put the cart before the horse a little, implying that piano lessons will make your child better in science - but it does reaffirm that creativity leads to more success in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

The scholars analyzed a group of Michigan State University Honors College graduates from 1990 to 1995 who majored in a STEM field and found a lot more of them were exposed to to the arts as children than the general public.  They defined "childhood" as up to 14 years old.

Do STEM-inclined students have lots of interests outside science or do the arts boost science ability? How the work will be interpreted is based on the people doing the interpretation. A recent study found that teenage girls who were in athletics also performed better in STEM fields. 

Musical training was most common. 93 percent of the STEM graduates reported playing music at some point in their lives, as compared to only 34 percent of average adults, as reported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The STEM graduates also reported higher-than-average involvement in the visual arts, acting, dance and creative writing.

Artists are not generally regarded as being more scientific, but STEM students tend to participate in the arts also. Credit: G.L. Kohuth, Michigan State University

In addition, those who had been exposed to metal work and electronics during childhood were 42 percent more likely to own a patent than those without exposure, while those involved in architecture were 87.5 percent more likely to form a company. And children with a photography background were 30 percent more likely to have a patent.


Such activity fosters out-of-the-box thinking, the researchers said. In fact, the group reported using artistic skills – such as analogies, playing, intuition and imagination – to solve complex problems.

"The most interesting finding was the importance of sustained participation in those activities," said Rex LaMore, director of MSU's Center for Community and Economic Development. "If you started as a young child and continued in your adult years, you're more likely to be an inventor as measured by the number of patents generated, businesses formed or articles published. And that was something we were surprised to discover."

"The skills you learn from taking things apart and putting them back together translate into how you look at a product and how it can be improved," said Eileen Roraback, of MSU's Center for Integrative Studies in the Arts and Humanities. "And there's creative writing. In our study, a biologist working in the cancer field, who created a business, said her writing skills helped her to write business plans and win competitions."  

"Inventors are more likely to create high-growth, high-paying jobs in our state, and that's the kind of target we think we should be looking for," LaMore said. "So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity, so that we have these outcomes."

Citation: Rex LaMore, Robert Root-Bernstein, Michele Root-Bernstein, John H. Schweitzer, James L. Lawton, Eileen Roraback, Amber Peruski, Megan VanDyke, and Laleah Fernandez, 'Arts and Crafts: Critical to Economic Innovation', Economic Development Quarterly, August 2013; vol. 27, 3: pp. 221-229, DOI: 10.1177/0891242413486186