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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Beyond the Classroom: The STEM movement needs to pick up STEAM


Written by Laurie Futterman

Not long ago, Pluto was demoted from planethood when someone realized it didn’t meet the specific celestial criteria. In a similar twist, when the powers that be created the curriculum title Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM), they somehow lost the perspective of how the vigor of these four disciplines has been and continues to be linked to the A — the arts. Instating the A into STEM (STEAM) not only acknowledges the historical role of art in the evolution of technology and science, it also revitalizes the future of those whose talents make it so.

A recent New York Times education article, Putting Art in STEM, reminds us of a time when art and engineering were not separate disciplines and how so many visionaries embraced the arts to create their technological feats. Back then, artists and engineers were seemingly one entity.

Today, scientists and artists don’t seem to have much in common. On first look, even their raw materials appear different. But on closer inspection, they all pull from the universal pot of energy and matter. Stephen Beal, President of California College of the Arts says that artists and designers tend to work subjectively — they find ways to express what is seen and felt. Scientists focus on objective data to acquire and explain new knowledge in measurable, empirical processes.

Yes, artists often deal in imagery, metaphor, illusions and emotions, and scientists, tech specialists, engineers and mathematicians tend to employ numbers, equations and data. But no one can deny the mind-boggling things that have been born from the merger of these five disciplines — the Pyramids, the Sphinx, the Moai, the Brooklyn and Golden Gate bridges and the Coliseum — to name just a few out of hundreds of thousands.

Despite the differences in approach and materials, some of the earliest inventors and scientists succeeded to integrate scientific discovery with artistic creativity — including Archimedes’s water screw (250 B.C.), the world’s first movable type printing by Han Chinese printer Bi Sheng (1044), Gutenberg’s mechanical printing press (1450), the navigational astrolabe (1480) and Leonardo da Vinci’s parachute (1485). All of these resulted from the combined discipline of STEAM — not STEM.

As a child, Albert Einstein studied piano and violin. As an adult, when he was having trouble with a scientific theory, he would strike a few piano chords or pick up the violin and play, and that would often free up a constructive thought or solution.

Even the iconic Steve Jobs spoke passionately about the intersection of technology and the arts. He included this at the 2010 unveiling of the iPad. He said “at Apple, technology alone is not enough, it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that make our hearts sing.”

However, education and industry has lost its holistic approach over time and have become über specialized and isolated. Although basic sketching skills are critical to the development of an engineer, few engineering schools actually require students to take art. It’s like being unilingual in a multilingual society. When an engineer can think across the math science and artistic spectrum, he/she will be able to design and create for humanity.

Some graduating engineering students, such as those at the University of Delaware, are beginning to incorporate holism into their senior projects, such as a life-like compression simulation vest for CPR training.

“Engineering students focused on the mechanics while the artists focused on the reality of the experience” says Provost Domenico Grasso.

Art, architecture and design students have a huge impact on social innovation. They illuminate and help find solutions to important global issues. They all play an ethical role in collaborating to create solutions to the ever-growing list of environmental and cultural dilemmas.

The international movement to add the arts — fine, language and musical arts — to STEM education is slow but gaining momentum. In a Texas middle school, students are not just learning about cities from books, they are building a functional city using Makerbot Replicator 3D printers to create the life and culture they envisioned. The lesson integrates math/engineering (bridge design) with the art of designing the objects their cities will need.

Today’s students may become artists, doctors or politicians. The challenges they will inherit in the years to come will certainly demand more of creative approach to ensure their prosperity. That being said, it may be possible that our best leaders will come from art and design backgrounds.

Government agencies are beginning to acknowledge that art and science — both dedicated to finding truth and beauty — are better together than apart. The National Science Foundation has funded a series workshops to explore STEM to STEAM themes. The National Endowment for the Arts is pushing for Artscience initiatives — intersecting art, science and technology.

Some great free/low-cost online games that embrace STEAM concepts and get kids excited about learning include:

  • Oregon Trail: This game, which has taken many forms over the years, integrates science, social studies, technology, mathematics and language arts.
  • Fantastic Contraption: Online puzzle game teaches the basics of physics to all ages of students, from kindergarten up.
  • Minecraft: Very popular game that teaches civil engineering, city planning, architecture, chemistry and the life sciences.
  • Foldit: This game challenges players to fold proteins into new shapes that can help scientists find new ways of curing diseases.

The “A” can no longer be ignored or isolated. The arts have been around long before S. T. E. and M. became an elitist club. In fact we owe much of our definition of homo sapien to “A.”

Art and design may be the defining factor in the transformation of our 21st century economy — the same way science and technology was in century before. It is very possible that the STEAM, not STEM, movement may be the opportunity our country needs to maintain its role as innovator of the world.

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