Why the STEAM Argument is One-Sided

Full steam ahead. Or should I say STEAM ahead? STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics and has been a driving force initiated by the National Science Foundation to focus education policy within technical areas and their associated disciplines. More recently, the letter “A” has been added to create a new movement called STEAM. The “A” stands for the arts, and according to a leading site devoted to STEAM, STEM + Art = STEAM. Since I spend much of my time thinking about the interconnections between STEM and the Arts, I welcome the STEAM movement. And yet, I have deep concerns about the movement’s three published policy goals stated on the STEAM site: (1) transform research policy to place Art + Design at the center of STEM; (2) encourage integration of Art + Design in K–20 education; and (3) influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation. These are worthwhile goals, but notice how all three goals seem to be about getting STEM-oriented folks to hire artists and designers, and placing art & design at the middle of STEM? Let’s flip this. What about having STEM at the center of Art and Design? I am not suggesting doing away with the three STEAM goals, but I am recommending some sort of balance by extending or broadening these goals; the current ones are lopsided. I strongly advocate new ways of starting with design and the arts, and then surfacing STEM concepts from within art and design. For the STEM subset of computing, this advocacy resulted in the aesthetic computing movement. Recently, this approach has taken root in learning systems thinking in the art museum. I am not the first to suggest this if we consider the larger literature base of blending STEM with the Arts. Take Martin Kemp’s book The Science of Art where he explores mathematics and optics via art. Also, the MIT Press Leonardo journals edited by Roger Malina has extensive historical coverage of intersections of STEM and the arts. Leonardo was founded in 1968, and so its publications contain a treasure trove of knowledge, suggesting new ways to get to the heart of STEAM. To advocates of STEAM, my suggestion is to rethink of STEAM as two-way traffic: two steam locomotives, two tracks, perhaps with some switches here and there.