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Tomorrow's Einsteins Are Playing in the Key of G(enius)

11/05/2013 05:35 EST | Updated 11/05/2013 05:36 EST

Did you know that you can make a flashlight out of a piano? OK, we're mostly joking. You probably can't make a working flashlight from a piano. But perhaps you can make a young genius with a piano, and that genius can invent a new flashlight that doesn't need batteries.

Ann Makosinski is the new star of Victoria, B.C. The 15-year-old captured headlines when she captured one of the top prizes at the 2013 Google Science Fair. Ann invented the "hollow flashlight" -- an LED flashlight that uses the heat of your hand to generate power, enabling it to shine without batteries. In a YouTube video, Ann describes the potential benefits: reducing the number of toxic batteries in our landfills, and providing light for young people to study by in developing communities without electricity.

What caught our eye in that video was the upright piano in the background. Whether by accident or design, the piano's inclusion is telling. In addition to being a budding inventor, Ann is apparently also a pianist of some accomplishment. There's another video of her performing a piano duet (she's quite good). What does the piano have to do with her scientific genius? Apparently a lot.

Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) just published a study drawing a strong line between creative arts and scientific acumen. The researchers found that, of 82 students who had graduated from science, technology, engineering and math programs at MSU's elite Honours College, 93 per cent had music training at some point in their lives.

Almost 60 years after his death, the name Albert Einstein remains a byword for genius. Einstein started violin lessons at the age of six and continued to play throughout his life. He admitted that playing music helped him sort out his thoughts when he became stuck on a physics problem.

Research like the MSU study proves what Einstein knew: creativity is creativity, whether it is applied to a violin concerto or discovering the theory of relativity. The researchers in Michigan said the graduates in their study group reported applying the skills they learned from their artistic endeavours -- such as imagination and intuition -- to solve the complex technological problems they faced in their careers.

In 2004, University of Toronto psychologist E. Glenn Schellenberg studied three groups of six-year-olds. The first group of children had weekly piano or singing classes, the second took weekly drama classes and the third had no special arts classes. He tested the children's IQ at the start of their Grade 1 school year, and then again before Grade 2. While all the children increased their IQ over the year -- simply because they were going to school -- those who took music classes showed IQ increases 2.7 points higher on average than the other groups. In February, researchers at Concordia University in Montreal published a study showing that starting children on musical training before they are seven will significantly impact the development of the motor control regions of their brains.

Thomas Sudhof, the biochemist awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for medicine, credited his childhood bassoon lessons with teaching him focus and dedication. This year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, plays the violin and teaches a course entitled Physics and Music at University of California at Berkeley. In the U.K., 17-year-old Lauren Marbe has been named one of the smartest people in the world with an IQ of 161. Lauren is a pianist, singer, and dancer who performed in the chorus of a professional production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in London's famous theatrical West End. And of course we have to mention Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who, as everyone now knows, plays a mean guitar -- whether he's floating in zero gravity or on our We Day stage.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the arts are not seen by all. When economic times are tough and governments ask educational institutions to tighten their belts, arts programs are often first on the chopping block. Facing a $3-million shortfall earlier this year, the University of Alberta stopped admission to 20 arts programs, including four bachelor of music programs. Also under budgetary pressure, the Toronto District School Board earlier this year considered laying off many of its itinerant music teachers.

If arts inspire inventors, cutting the arts could be the worst possible approach for our economy.

"Inventors are more likely to create high-growth, high-paying jobs... So we better think about how we support artistic capacity, as well as science and math activity," said Rex LaMore, director of MSU's Center for Community and Economic Development and the study's lead researcher, in a news article.

As the old saying goes: invent a better mouse trap and the world will beat a path to your door. If we want our children to be the ones inventing a better mousetrap -- or a better flashlight -- the piano seems like a good place to start.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.