Director of SciFest Dubai bridges the gap between art and science

Founder of SciFest Dubai and Cafe Scientifique Dubai, Rohan Roberts, discusses how a new approach to education that blends arts with science for a holistic experience and promoting creativity and critical thinking among youth is gaining traction.

English literature teacher Rohan Roberts has an anecdote that he often shares when he wants to defuse a debate on science versus arts.

"In his poem Lamia, 18th century romantic poet John Keats takes Isaac Newton to task for extending a scientific explanation to the existence of a rainbow," says the Dubai teacher.

Keats is known to have bluntly stated that the scientist had “destroyed all poetry of the rainbow by reducing it into a prism”.

But Roberts, head of professional development at the Winchester School in Dubai, disagrees with the notion of viewing science independently of the arts.

“In my opinion, Newton didn’t do any such thing,” he says. “He just added to our sense of wonder of the rainbow. Understanding the rainbow is refracted light in no way takes away from its beauty and majesty.”

Growing up in the UAE, the 38-year-old resident was exposed to the same isolated approach to science and arts in school, a problem he has taken upon himself to remedy now.

Since last year, the teacher has been leading in-school and community projects that blend the sciences and arts, including the first SciFest Dubai in February. The second edition will be held between October 4 and 9.

“What we need in the 21st century is to take a cross-curricular approach to learning,” says Roberts, who has a master’s in English literature from the University of Leeds in the UK. He has also published a novel, 2009’s Nikolo Behind the Burning Bush, available from Amazon, writes short-stories and dabbles in astronomy, portraits and mixed-media art.

“I was always passionate about literature and so I acquired a degree in that, but I was always curious about the world and was constantly asking the ‘why’ questions to my parents even as a kid. I found those answers in science books.

“At the same time I was also interested in the arts and music. So when I became an educator, I began using music to teach language, art to teach science and that motivated me to found the festival.”

The fest promotes “Steam” (Science Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics), a rapidly growing cross-curriculum approach to education, and a revision of the traditional singular focus on “Stem”.

Even top international universities such as Stanford in the US now require undergraduates to take some units of creative expression classes such as dance, design, drama or creative writing. The opinion is that the artistic dimension can improve innovation as students address issues more creatively.

“Latest research into neuroscience shows that if we want our students to be creative, innovative and critical, then we’ve got to bring strategies from the arts into science,” says Roberts.

The inaugural four-day SciFest in February last year had 13,000 visitors attend more than 25 different events. This year, the festival will be held in October at Children’s City in Dubai.

“We recognise that not all students or the general public are interested in science. So we wanted to get people interested by catering to their interests through music, drama, art and debates,” says the co-founder of the festival.

One of their successful integration of the two fields was in the area of science poetry during the fest.

“As an English teacher I’m aware of traditional poets like Wordsworth and Byron and we teach them as part of the curriculum. But what a lot of people don’t know is there is a lot of science poetry too, about the human brain, universe and laws of nature. So we introduced that at the festival in the form of performances.”

Participants were invited to convey their wonder through paintings of planets, black holes, nebulas and astronomy, while designers wove fabric to match scientific themes of the universe, electricity and human brain for a fashion show.

The engagement with the curious minds doesn't stop with the end of the festival. To get the conversation going all year round, he has also initiated Cafe Scientifique Dubai, a local arm of the cafe first initiated in the United Kingdom. The initiative is followed by 24,000 people on Facebook.

“We take science outside the classroom setting and bring it into a communal setting where people feel relaxed and discuss sincere issues over a cup of coffee,” says Roberts.

The meeting, held several times a year, have attracted interest from hundreds of residents who come together to discuss topics of intelligent optimism, artificial intelligence and technological singularity.

In April, the founder invited Dr Donald Thomas, a retired astronaut at Nasa to discuss space travel.

Roberts says there is a still a long way to go in convincing educators to get on board with integrating the fields.

“We have to convince teachers that arts engages the young brain and helps in cognitive growth,” he says. “Using strategies from the arts helps long-term memory, promotes creativity and introduces an element of novelty in the classroom. They have to realise this is the only way to create innovators and entrepreneurs.”

He believes the system adopted in Finland, a country that consistently ranks high on international standardised school tests, have got it right. The country recently announced they will be eliminating subject-based learning to focus on a cross-curricular approach.

“My philosophy is that science is much too important to leave just to scientists,” says Roberts. “Everyone should be inclined towards science and it is more a way of looking at the world, not just facts and statistics in a textbook.

“If you want to get rid of superstitions and mumbo-jumbo, then we have to have a scientifically literate population.”