The subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are often grouped together due to their inherent overlap in subject matter and logic-focused approach to teaching and learning. However, with a rising employment focus on interdisciplinary skills, STEM is increasingly paired with the arts to create the all-encompassing educational approach known as ‘STEAM.’
Even for those within the field, the ‘arts’ can be hard to define. In reference to ‘STEAM,’ the term ‘arts’ typically refers to the creative arts, subjects such as creative writing, photography and film, music, drama, illustration, and design. The integration of these subjects into STEM learning is no new concept; you could say it laid the foundation for the entire European Renaissance of the middle ages, driving rationalized creativity, invention, and perhaps even modern society as we know it. STEAM thinking has served an excellent purpose for societal advancement throughout history; however, in our post-renaissance logic-centered world of circuit boards and wires, do the arts really have a place in 21st Century STEM, or is STEAM-thinking just another outdated trend?
A Focus on STEM
Despite many groundbreaking scientific discoveries being coupled with the arts (look at the first images of microbes sketched by van Leeuwenhoek, or the amazing mechanical inventions of Da Vinci), not everyone agrees upon the value of modern STEAM; in fact, some believe that the arts should leave STEM well alone altogether and not detract from a purist approach to technological progress. This resistance to STEAM is perhaps unsurprising, considering the STEM-focused pressures of our rapidly changing world and 21st Century fears surrounding job insecurity.
In recent decades, an explosion of new technology, environmental issues, and consequent social pressures have resulted in increased funding opportunities (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/03/uk-cues-big-funding-increases-rd) for science and technology research and development, supposedly increasing job security for those who study within STEM-related fields. This wealth of opportunity within STEM has detracted potential funding from the arts, forcing a clear distinction between the two in schools and universities - this is probably the main reason many of us view the arts and sciences as inherently distinct.
A scarcity of funding for arts-based research has made establishing an arts-focused career a challenge for many - a fact which has not been overlooked by schools and universities. A lack of tenure track opportunities for arts-qualified individuals means that STEM professors remain the pride of educational institutions, leaving post-doctoral artists hidden in shadowy, forgotten departments (should there be any at all). Outside academia, the prospect for arts graduates looks a little more promising. However, creative arts retain some of the lowest employment rates of any discipline (https://theconversation.com/humanities-graduates-earn-more-than-those-who-study-science-and-maths-141112). These ongoing challenges have forced many creative personalities into a more lucrative career in STEM, making STEAM an all-the-more appealing outlet when it comes to professional development and creative careers.
Integrating Art into Science and Tech
By integrating the arts with STEM, a growing market for education, communication, and engagement provides much-needed career opportunities for creative individuals. This is perhaps best exemplified within the increasingly diverse sector, known as medical communications (medcomms). Increasingly, visual artists, producers, and writers are employed into medcomms for their visionary thinking, communication skills, and understanding of design. These skills are extremely valuable when communicating hard-hitting, complicated, or technical aspects of STEM (such as pharmaceutical, surgical, or public health matters) where relying on non-creative insight simply would not be enough.
Though the arts and sciences share a distinctly different agenda, understanding and interpretation are both essential to innovation. Typically, STEM subjects focus on hard skills (such as calculating, operating, and building) in an understanding of how the world works. The arts, however, tend to focus on soft skills (such as communication, understanding, and expression) through an interpretation of our human experience. By applying an arts perspective to STEM know-how, creative solutions can be found for real-world problems; perhaps the most obvious example of this is in the development of advanced robotics and artificial intelligence.
Fiction and fantasy have long since predicted the development of machines that can truly live the human experience (consider films like ‘AI’ or ‘Ex Machina’). While there is no doubt that robotic technology is rapidly advancing, true intelligence will never be achieved without a deep and profound understanding of the arts, imagination, and culture. While humanized robots may seem far from reality [yet], STEAM is already having an impact on innovation closer to home. If you own a high-end or latest generation tablet, computer, or mobile device, there’s a strong probability you chose it, at least in part, for its appealing design and intuitive user experience. Steve Jobs famously said, “technology alone is not enough,” and this STEAM approach has produced some of the most human-centric innovations of our lifetime.
STEAM For The Future
As we continue to innovate our understanding of the world, we must also innovate our education systems. By re-integrating the arts into STEM within schools and universities, it is possible to appeal an understanding of science and tech to the broadest possible audience - not just those who have a natural aptitude for hard skills. By using the arts as a tool for science communication, it is possible to promote a new, public understanding of science and trust in technology - something which is ever more essential in our STEM-driven world and not least prepares young people for a STEM-oriented jobs market.