by Deb Mills-Scofield

STEAM’D about STEM

STEM, critical to America’s economic and innovative future, illustrates our educational systems’ decades long appreciation of the need for more science and math and, simultaneously, the decades long depreciation of the arts.  That’s why I’m STEAM’D about STEM! Fortunately, the tide is shifting with the growing recognition and inclusion of the Arts in STEM, aka STEAM.   For those of us that have raised, educated and played with little children – from babies to elementary-aged kids, we know that the best learning is through the arts, and studies increasing prove us right.  Just look at how little kids learn, especially before they start school:

 

  • Singing songs to learn the ABCs, Aleph Bets, numbers, colors, animals, holidays, etc.;
  • Drawing and coloring in and out of the lines – pictures, letters, numbers, colors, etc.;
  • Memorizing poetry and rhythm;
  • Building with blocks, wooden ones to Lego®, designing with different shapes, colors and functions.

 

And then, we put them in the educational system. Once kids start first grade, even kindergarten for some, poof! the Arts starts to go away.  They are the first to get cut when budgets are tight, along with plain old play, another age-old, well studied form of learning.   Why? Because we value the outputs of education instead of the outcomes – test scores over understanding.  We train our kids to get a 780 on the SAT, but can they draw analogies between the Arab Spring and the American Revolution? That assumes they know about the Arab Spring.  We teach the chemistry and geometry of our world…but we do we educate them to see the beauty and uniqueness of a snowflake’s geometry?  Or how parts of the earth look like paintings?

 

When I was growing up in New Jersey, the museums in NYC were free on Tuesdays so my mom took me into the city almost every Tuesday, taking me out of school, to spend the day absorbed in art.  We went back in to the city during the evenings for the theater, symphony, ballet and opera.  I was taught that a diversity of thought and disciplines led to innovation, creativity and wisdom.  It was by combining these very different viewpoints and perspectives that we became a whole, well-rounded person that could change the world.  Despite missing so much school, well, maybe because I missed so much school, my grades didn’t suffer. I even had a few teachers that understood.  My high school physics teacher, Mr. Mitchell, taught us physics in a very real way: “Today we’re going to learn how a refrigerator works.  We’re going to see how we could design one to work better too.” My years at Brown built on that, as did my time at Bell Labs.

 

The outcome of ignoring the “A” is all around us.  That’s why I’m STEAM’D about it!  To me, adding the “A” into STEM also implies the D – Design.  Perhaps part of the reason our institutional systems are impotent and crumbling – like government, education and healthcare – is because we have ignored the art and design of systems.  With the 20th century’s emphasis on efficiency over effectiveness, we compartmentalized and dissected our systems into pieces.  This made it was easier to assign responsibility, to understand and to measure – it made the complicated less complicated, but ignored the inherent complexity.

 

Now’s the time to change that.  We are living with the consequences, not all bad, but most formidably problematic.  It’s time to balance effectiveness with efficiency, to address the complex, not just the complicated.  I think that requires putting Art and Design back into the equation.  In fact, I believe that it is imperative.  While some dismiss art and design as ‘soft skills’, those indeed are the skills we need, my clients seek, companies and organizations are desperate to acquire.  The hard skills are important, but if they are not integrated with the soft skills, they usually are not adopted, adapted and implemented, at least not usefully.

 

The shift from STEM to STEAM’D is happening.  Several years ago, the power of storytelling in business emerged and is now gaining ground.  One of my heroes, and friends, John Hagel, is showing the power of the narrative – an ongoing story that includes many people in its creation – for business and society.  With the advance of 3D printing, design is taking a more important role, as with the increasing need for prosthetics, not just in terms of function and use, but also artistic design.  The applicability of art and design for and on our world is limitless. With the Smithsonian’s recent announcement of a portal for downloading 3D renderings of its treasures, we can print the gunboat Philadelphia and see where and how people would be positioned, how the space on the boat could affect the relationships and response times, etc. Think of the implications for history, sociology, the classics, etc.!

 

Fortunately, STEAM is gaining STEAM.  From students working to create a common language between the arts and science, like Hanna McPhee ’14, to maker spaces where students, and faculty, can bring science, technology, engineering and math together with art, music, archeology, history, etc.  Our world desperately needs this shift.  We live in a non-linear, unpredictable, complex world.  It is through art and design that we can start creating meaningful and sustainable system-level solutions.  It is through STEAM, that we “… serve the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.”