Something’s Missing from STEM

Let’s start from the very beginning.  I find myself to be one of the few people I know who has deep interests involving both brain hemispheres.  My major in undergrad was biology, I spent time tinkering with tissue culture as a graduate student at the University of Florida, and I have that knack for remembering scientific names for plants.  Every since I was about 8 years old, and reading through the Arboretum Journals, botany has always held a fascination for me (does anyone else collect Viburnum species?).  When the right side of my brain takes over, I have a jewelry business on the side, and have juried into a couple national art shows with my pastel paintings.

Perhaps it’s my liberal arts background, but I find STEM in and of itself to be limiting.  It completely forgets that in order to use what’s learned in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, one must think creatively.  How do you interpret data?  By thinking out of the box in a creative way.  How do you test your hypothesis?  By thinking of a creative way to test that one variable.  I read today  that  bioengineering is going to be one of the fastest growing careers between 2010 and 2020 because of the “Perfect Storm of STEM education and the demand for better medical devices.” (in the print version, p. 40) Somehow, I don’t think there will be a whole lot of new devices designed without some creative ideas on what needs to be made (what problems need to be solved), and then how to tackle and hopefully solve those problems in a new way.

A couple of weeks ago, someone on Twitter posted that we should change STEM to STEAM with the addition of Art.  As an artist, I’m all about including artistic expression whenever and wherever possible.  However, I don’t think Art is enough to make STEM even more robust.  To me, art is expression of feeling; creativity is certainly involved, but the impetus behind art is beauty (or its antithesis, for some).  Beauty is all about feelings.  Art communicates to viewer/users through their feelings.

Creativity, on the other hand, implies divergent thinking.  Something/someone can be creative without being artistic.  Last summer, I was creative when I changed my raised patio to a sunken one in front of a retaining wall.  I applied artistic sense by taking the time to put in curves built with complementary-colored stones and enhanced by natural plantings.  The change in design was creative.  The visual appeal was artistic.

artistic embellishment of a creative solution

Adding a Creativity component to STEM would emphasize the necessity for students to not only learn and understand science, technology, engineering, math and their interconnectedness, but kids would learn to apply that knowledge in new ways.  Americans are known for their innovations and creative spirit. Standardized testing has eroded our kids’ creativity by labeling  anything that’s not reading- or STEM-related as secondary.  No one says it out loud, of course, but the message is loud and clear:  artistic pursuits are for hobbies once you’re grown up and out of school.  Emphasizing the use of STEM knowledge to create new ideas through identifying new relationships, or to create new products through divergent innovation – THAT is what STEM should be about.  Schools should be allowing and encouraging creativity in their students.  Time as well as financial and personnel resources should be made available to all students in an effort to maximize creative potential in kids.

Rather than focusing energy and resources on STEM per se, I believe schools should emphasize divergent thinking and problem solving.  If teachers use STEM, then I hope they use it in conjunction with Problem-Based Learning or something similar that requires a product or a solution derived from the students’ innate creativity.  THAT is using both sides of your brain.



2 comments on “Something’s Missing from STEM

  1. bobhhoffmann says:

    The presentations that I’ve seen about expanding “STEM to STEAM” have included all sorts of language and visual arts topics that I would not feel capable or comfortable with as part of my thirty years of teaching physics, math, and electronics at the high school and technical college levels. In addition, the current content packed into a semester has more than doubled since I began my career, so there is not time nor resource to include any “arts” instruction, as such, into the courses.

    I certainly agree that there are critical thinking, workplace relationships, and life skills that are important to the STEM curriculum, and I have implemented them as part of the learning process in the classroom. Yet the actual instruction of those techniques belongs to the “soft skills” departments providing instruction in the world language, English, fine arts, and social sciences.

    The traditional STEM subjects are related by common modes of thought dealing with “the nature of science” and “empirical evidence”, which are guided by the rules of logic and mathematics. So a description of “STEM+”, rather than “STEAM”, might be more appropriate to linking the “external” natural sciences to the “internal” social arts.

    Maybe the arts community needs to come up with its own acronym to balance the relative importance of each knowledge domain, rather than trying to merge into “STEM”. May I suggest something like “Communication, Social, and Cultural Arts” or “CSCA”. The common modes of thought in this realm involve “expressions” and “transactions”, which are guided by the “norms” of society. So we might agree on the equation: “STEM + CSCA = 21st Century Curriculum”. In any case, a new acronym and label is needed to replace “Arts and Humanities”, which sounds so medieval these days.

    I do not mean to imply that a STEM curriculum has a priority over other parts of the student’s learning and experience. It’s just that STEM already has enough to do teaching the “hard skills”, that adding any more topics or lessons will dilute the effort and the results at the high school and college levels. Let’s clearly identify that both “arts” and “sciences” are essential parts of the total learning experience.

  2. matthewweld says:

    @bobhhoffmann: Thanks for the well-crafted reply. I understand about the increase in curricular demands, and of the academic requirements of upper level mathematics and sciences. I also see where teachers of the sciences do not feel equipped to teach the arts (and vice versa). But what if evidence of learning were to include more of the “soft skills” – similar to what may be produced in the ‘real world’ where scientists have to write papers, defend hypotheses, and illustrate engineering ideas after they work through all the “hard skills”?

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