By Sarah Vander Schaaff

If you hear the word “STEM” and think of a plant, you may be my kindred spirit. But having spent some time writing this blog, I now know that STEM is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and it’s a field on many people’s minds.

Finding young people with potential to excel in STEM-related careers is a national priority, but where we look for such talent may be expanding.

A study published this past February by Barbara Kerr and Robyn McKay in the Creative Research Journal (Searching for Tomorrow’s Innovators: Profiling Creative Adolescents) suggests we may find future STEM innovators not only in high level math and science classes, but also in the arts.

If you are a parent of a creative child, the news may be heartening: given the right guidance, a teenager who excels in dance, music, writing, visual and other arts can discover how to apply these gifts to STEM innovation. Likewise, the researchers say, sticking with a career in the arts also cultivates innovation because a thriving arts community attracts other visionaries.

However, the main goal of Kerr and McKay’s study was to identify the creative teens with the most potential for STEM innovation. They developed a profile of such a candidate in part by looking at the biographies of famous or successful creative people. And they paid particular attention to what these adults were like as teens.

In a sense, they took advantage of hindsight, tracing successful people back to their less groomed, and perhaps less appreciated, adolescent roots.

With this understanding, they created the profiles for specific “domains” or fields of creativity. How these traits can lead to careers in innovation, especially in STEM fields, was their aim, but I found the profiles to be of great interest.

I am ending this blog with descriptions of these profiles. Maybe these will help some parents think about how their artist can find fulfillment in a field they’d not before considered. Maybe it will help some feel better about a report card with all the highs and lows of a Beethoven symphony. Or maybe it will just help parents understand a bit more about their creative teens.

The study, “Searching for Tomorrow’s Innovators: Profiling Creative Adolescents”, grouped creative profiles into 5 categories:

1. “Language; Verbal/linguistic creativity; potential writers, journalists, translators, and linguists.

The student is likely to be a precocious and avid reader with an extensive knowledge of literature; a sophisticated writer; may have advanced ability to learn other languages. The student should have outstanding verbal accomplishments. He/she may be witty and expressive. Verbal precocity may get him or her in trouble. The student is likely to have excellent grades in Language Arts/English/Foreign language when interested, and have high scores on verbal achievement tests. May have mood swings, ranging from expansive, energetic, optimism when he or she works day and night with intensity on a project, to periods of self-doubt, low energy, and cynicism. (Sources: Andreason, 1987; F. Barron, 1969; Jamison, 1989; Kaufman, 2001, 2002; Piirto, 2002; Valdés, 2003; VanTassel-Baska, Johnson, & Boyce, 1996).

2. Mathematical and Scientific Inventiveness

The student may be a natural mathematician with an ability to perform complex computations in his or her head or who possesses an advanced understanding of mathematical and scientific concepts. The student loves science, experimentation, and new technology. In addition, the student enjoys manipulating materials and information, tinkering, adjusting the designs of objects, apparel, hardware and software. Intense curiosity and fascination with enigmas and unsolved problems leads this student to read widely and in depth. If challenged, the student has good grades in math, science, and laboratory classes; if not, the student may expend little effort. Most scientists and inventors as adolescents had significant accomplishments such as winning regional or national math and science competitions, or having patentable inventions or designs that were income-producing. These students are usually well-adjusted, but are likely to have just a few like-minded friends. (Sources: Assouline & Lupkowski-Shoplik, 2005; Benbow & Lubinski, 2006; Colangelo, Assouline, Croft, & Ihrig, 2003; Feist, 2006; Simonton, 1988; Sriraman, 2005; Subotnik, Maurer, & Steiner, 2001).

3. Interpersonal/Emotional Creativity

These students are characterized by emotional intelligence, meaning they have the ability to understand and manage their own emotions and those of others. The student may be a natural mimic, able to do impressions, absorb accents, and “get inside another’s skin.” The student may be the kind of helper that other students seek out for help and or a natural leader who is usually selected by peers to lead in both formal and informal situations. They are extraverted and people-oriented, able to form relationships across cultures and age groups; agreeable and friendly toward all. They thrive on connection, and experience deep empathy. They may have excellent grades in social sciences, debate, rhetoric, and leadership courses, as well as recognition for performance, leadership, or volunteerism. (Sources: Bolton & Thompson, 2004; Daloz, Keen, Keen, & Parks, 1996; Hogan, Curphy, & Hogan, 1994; Montuori & Purser, 1999; Salovey & Grewel, 2005; Simonton, 1984a.

4. Musical and Dance Creativity

The student has the ability to sing or play instruments—usually multiple instruments—or to dance with technical expertise and imagination. She or he may have an intuitive understanding of music or movement, and often has perfect pitch, excellent rhythm, and musical memory. The student can compose or choreograph; his or her own creations have won the recognition of experts. The student dances, sings, and performs as often as possible—but may be defensive, anxious, or perfectionistic, sometimes leading to denial of coveted roles while in school. These students possess excellent musical knowledge in one or more genres, such as hip hop, jazz, pop, or classical, and may have sought out rare and little known pieces for inspiration. Although more introverted than extraverted, the student is likely to be transformed on stage into an expressive, creative performer, entering a flow state that conquers shyness or anxiety. (Sources: Kogan, 2002; Oreck, Owen, & Baum, 2003; Slaboda, 1988, 2005; Van Rossum, 2001).

5. Spatial Visual Creativity

The student has a powerful ability to visualize designs, colors, and to manipulate 3D images in mind and an ability to draw models and designs with technical skill. The student is imaginative and original in thinking, conversation, and attire. He or she creates cartoons, Web sites, paintings, graphic art, sculpture, photography, video, or architecture that has already earned the recognition of experts. The student may have excellent grades in art, photography, shop, drawing, or other course emphasizing spatial/visual ability, but may underperform in other classes. Like writers, artists are likely to have mood swings, but those students who lean more toward design and architecture may be more stable in mood. The student is more introverted than extroverted, reflective, and easily enters flow states. (Sources: F. Barron, 1972; Csikszentmihalyi & Getzels, 1971; Dudek & Hall, 1991; Kay, 2000; MacKinnon, 1961; Pariser & Zimmerman, 2004; Stohs, 1992)”

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