Thursday, September 29, 2011

STEAM: A Powerful Agent for Change

Steam by Ronan_C on flickr*

Have you heard of STEM to STEAM? You may have heard the phrase around the web, at conferences, or even on my blog- it's one that comes up relatively frequently in arts ed advocacy circles. What does that mean? Is it a coalition? An organization? A movement? All or none of the above? In this post I’m going to outline what STEAM is and why it is so important to the future success of our nation...and the world.

 How to Succeed in Business? STEAM!
          STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math - subjects that no one will deny are necessary for success in the global economy. For that reason, these subjects also don't have to stand up to the kind of scrutiny arts and humanities do. However, art education advocates have pointed out that STEM education alone won't solve our economic problems going forward. That includes business executive Harvey White, co-founder of Qualcomm, the largest fabless chip supplier in the world. I don’t know what a fabless chip is--perhaps because my education post-2002 has lacked in the STEM department. ;)
     As an innovator and entrepreneur in the technology industry, White obviously knows a thing or two about STEM subjects, and about what it takes to succeed in business. So it's great news that White has come out as a strong advocate for adding an A to STEM, working with Americans for the Arts, the Conference Board, and others to push this message. Last summer I viewed a webinar in which White made a convincing argument for STEAM (read my coverage of that webinar here). White pointed out that countries such as China, recognize the important role of creativity and critical thinking in the innovation process more than we do here in the US of A. He also quoted former Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who said our future success will depend on "solving problems that we don't know are problems yet." This combination of technological know-how and critical thinking skills that will help students with a STEAM education succeed in business  in the future - locally and globally. (Read more of White on STEAM at ARTSblog.)

Art and Design for Good
    STEAM was on my mind this week because I kept coming across information about a STEM to STEAM forum in Rhode Island, led by Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda and Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI). The forum also focused on STEAM as a powerful tool for workforce development (in fact, the forum followed a Washington briefing led by Madea and Langevin demonstrating the potential of STEAM). But though workforce dev was the subject at hand, Maeda's perspective on STEAM also added another layer of understanding- the revolutionary power of design.
     As I mentioned in my ARTSblog post about STEAM, engineering is essentially the art of using science and math to creatively solve problems. That's where design comes in. "Art and design are critical components of innovating products that are both effective and appealing to consumers," Langevin said at the STEAM forum. Maeda continued "I believe art and design are poised to change the world now like science and technology did in the last century," said Maeda, citing the iPod as an example.
     Indeed, the iPod (or the iPhone, or the iPad) is a great example of the practical synthesis of art, design, and STEM. But STEAM also has the potential to create change in ways that range beyond providing consumers with attractive products that do everything. I immediately thought of a New Yorker article I read last year about designing innovative stoves that, if widely distrubuted, could change thousands of lives in third world countries. STEAM doesn't just change lives by allowing us to check Facebook while grocery shopping- it could help drive innovations in social change, too.

     Harvey White and John Maeda provide different yet complementary perspectives on the power of STEAM to revolutionize the American workforce of the future--which, in These Difficult Economic Times, is particularly exciting and appealling. I can't resist...STEAM deserves to, ahem, pick up steam in education policy!

What is your experience with STEM to STEAM? Have you seen art integrated into math and science lessons- or vhave you integrated those two subjects into the art room?

*I was really hoping to use J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed for this post- an artwork about modern engineering if there ever was one...and not to mention the literal STEAM connection! Unfortunately the National Gallery in the UK owns the rights and I could not find a free image. But please enjoy that splendid painting here.

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