A Case for the STEAM Powered Future We Crave

Technologies that blur the line between science and humanities and propel us toward a STEAM powered future.

Throughout grade school, I remember being told that people are either stronger with their left or right brain.  A binary that was generalized to represent creative (right brained) vs logical thinkers (left brained).  This metaphor leaves impressionable students to believe that the two fields are separate but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Enter STEAM.

STEAM introduces the arts into the teaching of STEM and reveals how all fields are interwoven. This includes, but not limited to, language arts, visual arts, and social studies.  This type of learning has been gaining traction around the country but, close to home in PA, Chevron awarded 2 school districts in 2015 $530k to implement STEAM programs.

Despite the antiquated connotation of a steam powered future, a STEAM powered future is  bright, aesthetically pleasing, and emphasizes communication.

Widening Our Understanding of STEM

STEM is a collection of subjects taught to students. Each letter stands for a different field: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

“[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…”

Looking at this Obama quote we scratch the surface of the importance of art and design in the essence of progress. It is the goal of the United States to see a large growth in the number of students enrolled in STEM fields by 2020, however, some believe that we are looking at scientific literacy from a narrow field of view and neglecting what makes all this progress valuable: usability. 

Obama pointed out that science is also a way to engage with the world, however when we are stuck learning about theory we lack that aspect of the application. The solution for this concern is placing art and design education at the center of STEM teachings. Leading the charge for this movement is Rhode Island School of Designs’ office of government relations.

Art and design strengthens elements of social responsibility, creative thinking, and innovative acuity in the scientific world.  Humans are generally visual beings.  The things we use need to be aesthetically pleasing and intuitive, offering affordances that require little time to understand. 

In the professional computer science world, this is usually viewed as front-end development although there has been a rise in positions for “creative developer/coder”.  The job of this creative developer is to understand the whole scope of the project and be able to not only think creatively with the visual aspect of the program but also creatively with the structure of the program itself.  STEAM has the ability to teach students this holistic approach to programming as well as in other innovative endeavors.

STEM has clear goals of progress. What happens when that progress is muddied by a lack of understanding of the nuances of social relationships? All that work is for naught, or worse causes further rifts in an already divided world.  Arts studies have an emphasis on the ethics surrounding implementation that the average STEM lesson plan woefully neglects.

An example of scientific concepts using visual arts can be seen in this MIT paper titled “Application of Cellular Automata for a Generative Art System”.

Noise is another example of scientific concepts used frequently in digital art.  Below you can see an experiment of using Perlin noise to model and shade a generative spheroid.  Noise lends itself to generating high-quality random numbers for scientific use.  This is a deep topic on its own. If you find yourself interested please check out the magazine Holo, a publication on “emerging trajectories in art, science, and technology” in which the 2nd edition is dedicated to randomness.

Widening our Understanding of the Arts

It is disheartening to hear artists admit, almost proudly, that they are clueless when it comes to math or science.  Art reflects the world and without even a limited understanding of these key concepts, it is difficult to make an impact. Additionally, these are such broad topics that to be “bad” at it is giving oneself too little credit.

For example, when it comes to visual arts an understanding of wavelengths and optics is a necessary component of color theory. In language arts an understanding of psychology and semiotics is critical.  This art particularly highlights the communication aspect necessary for a STEAM powered future. 

Art is about communicating an idea in a way that is unique to the artist yet transcends personal barriers.

Without proper communication applications of science and technology are useless.  Since communication is subjective it takes an understanding of all fields to truly appeal to the masses when it comes to creating.

Like anything else STEM subjects take practice.  It is the goal of STEAM to contextualize these subjects and create well-rounded individuals with the ability to problem solve from multiple viewpoints.  Imagine a cohesive lesson plan where you are learning about physics in one class and utilizing your new-found knowledge of acoustics to create music in another class.  This ideal symbiosis is how we should be looking at education in America.

An example of scientific and artistic studies combined can be seen in the everlasting impact of Leonardo Di Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

The STEAM Powered Future

Hopefully, it is now clear that we should not be thinking about education from this divided perspective.  It takes a holistic mindset to truly understand an issue. It is not worth setting out on a solution if that solution will have issues of its own. For every passing moment in history, the youth become the torchbearers in the name of peace and progress.  Harmony between these seemingly disparate frames of reference is the first step toward harmony in general.


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