Going Deeper with STEAM

STEM is an acronym for “Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math” and STEAM is a variation on that acronym that adds an “A for ART” to that grouping of disciplines.

There are two main reasons for adding art to STEM:

  1. It makes STEM more attractive to more students
  2. It infuses STEM with the rigor of artistic practice

We do the first one well. It’s a pretty effective tactic for attracting a diverse set of students to STEM.

We don’t yet do the second one well. This is because there is a lot of confusion about what artistic practice or design or creativity is. Many think it’s a free for all, do anything you want, just adds crayons or post its or pipe cleaners. But that approach to creativity is missing the mark.

Artistic practice should be integrated with STEM because it offers rigorous methods for the following creative processes:

  • Understanding Human Interaction and Empathy
  • Exploring and Iterating in a Problem Space
  • Using Decision Making and Constraints in a Solution Space

Human Interaction and Empathy. Creativity is about a deep understanding of the ever-evolving relationship between audience and viewer, writer and reader, producer and consumer. This understanding can be referred to as empathy. Folks in STEM disciplines tend to get wrapped up in the science and technology and forget about the effect that new technologies have on humans. Artistic practice brings that human experience to the forefront.

Exploration and Iteration. Have you ever seen Leonardo’s notebooks? Before he committed one drop of paint to a canvas, there was sketching. Lots of it. He thought with a pencil in hand and explored his subject by sketching variations on a theme. Only then could he make decisions about what to paint, build, create. STEM researchers can rush to solutions or outcomes too quickly. Artistic practice requires the practitioner to linger in that unfamiliar space for a while. To wade in the dark without a flashlight or a map. Uncertainty is a necessary part of being an artist.

Decision Making and Constraints. But artists don’t stay uncertain forever. Well, they may retain some uncertainty, but that doesn’t keep them from making decisions. Through their exploration, they figure out what is important and then make a series of decisions to highlight that important thing and let go of the rest. They say that documentary films come together in the editing room. An extraordinary amount of footage ends up on the cutting room floor. STEM researchers might see that discarded film as failure or inefficiency. But artists see it as the cost of doing business.

How might we integrate these deeper lessons from ART with STEM education?