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STEM vs STEAM

Do we really need the “A”?

I have several answers to this. The short answer is “yes.” The “thrown gauntlet” answer is “Read up on Leonardo da Vinci then try to come up with an honest argument against adding the Arts to STEM.” Should you feel compelled to try, I might further suggest you saunter through the Smithsonian, or the pages of National Geographic or the many works of John James Audubon.

The longer answer revolves around my belief that STEM without the arts is “all potential and no kinetic.” Now some might be inclined to declare just the opposite, but the world is powered by STEAM. Even nuclear reactors are just great big steam engines. As I see it, it is the Arts that teach us how to dream. From dreams we find inspiration and direction. Only then, does the massive potential of STEM become useful. Without some direction, it is pent up energy with nothing to do. When we make it STEAM, we power the world. Stated another way, STEM gives us the power to do anything. STEAM tells us what to do with it.

Without the Arts, we would not even have a decent way to throw a victory party to celebrate the many accomplishments of STEM.

While poking around, I came across this article (https://tinyurl.com/y95sus5q) in Education Week Teacher, “STEM vs STEAM: Do the Arts Belong?”, by Anne Jolly, November 18, 2014. The article is a bit dated, thus begging for updated analysis but it does outline the initial confrontation between those for and against STEAM. She summarizes the STEM purpose with the statement:

STEM, then, is a specific program designed for a specific purpose—to integrate and apply knowledge of math and science in order to create technologies and solutions for real-world problems, using an engineering design approach. It’s no surprise that STEM programs need to maintain an intense focus.

At the school age implementation of this however, this ends up focusing almost entirely on the “how” with only some incidental discussion of even the “what.” The “why” is made almost irrelevant. The “why” is nothing more than a simple answer to a task or question. “Build a bridge from here to there, capable of supporting a specific weight.” The creativity some argue exists in the program, comes from the application of artificially scarce materials or time. At no point, is the student expected to challenge the need for a bridge in the first place. This is stated fairly explicitly later in the article.

STEM projects do not deliberately exclude the arts or any other subject; rather, these subjects are included incidentally as needed for engineering challenges.

The key word of course, is “incidentally.” The Arts are not considered a first class contributor to the process.

At first glance, the author’s response to this appears excessively, even insultingly weak. She suggests the Arts could be introduced by stating:

They could use computer graphics to create logos or stylized designs to include in communications or presentation … What about technical or persuasive writing? Those arts fit naturally into the “Communications” stage of the engineering design process.

Again, it makes the Arts sound like fluff. A little glitter and polish to “wow” the less technical. The author herself admits these thoughts are still half baked. There is however a surprising truth and strength in those statements and I suggest they not be dismissed so quickly.

Allow me to reminisce a bit. I started my Information Technology (IT) career in the computer room at a University. The first Sun Microsystems workstation I ever saw was a god-awful ugly looking thing. But it did its job so why did it matter? Even so, years later, when I saw my first NeXTSTEP workstation, I could not help but stare and say “Ooooooohhhh” and I had not even touched it yet. Years later, I was working for a company creating web based applications. The company hired some graphic designers and I scoffed at the waste of money. After all, it did not really take that much skill to create a web form. When they finally demonstrated their efforts, I again caught myself “Oooooohing.” Even more interesting, as they walked through how they envisioned the application working, I realized they had defined a far more natural and efficient work flow and interaction.

To finally drive the point home, I attended a seminar by Edward Tuffte. As part of the seminar he discussed how damaging poor communication can be. In this case, Power Point presentations made to NASA over safety concerns with the Space Shuttle Columbia. The discussion, also outlined on his web site here (“PowerPoint Does Rocket Science–and Better Techniques for Technical Reports”, https://tinyurl.com/jxxm5oh), demonstrated how the presentation tool [Power Point] encouraged a communication style that not only obscured the original message, it reversed it.

I leave you with the following thought. In his TED Talk (“Insightful human portraits made from data,” https://tinyurl.com/y79p74vg), R. Luke DuBois, said:

[Data Visualization] When you do it right, it is illuminating. When you do it wrong, it is anesthetizing …

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