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.

Thoughts?