When STEM becomes STEAM

-May 18, 2015

You are probably familiar with some of the many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) programs which have been under way in the past few years. The goal is to interest young people in these topics; Dean Kamen's FIRST robotics program is among the oldest and best known of these programs, which has involved thousands of students in exciting projects and competitions.

But what does bother me is that the apparent success and interest in the STEM program has already had a "slipstream" effect. This is the attempt by some in arts education to expand STEM to become STEAM, http://stemtosteam.org/ with that A added for "art." To this I say, "hey, stay away, please." Art-related education is nice -- it has its place, it's a good thing -- but please give the technical community some space of its own.

Is STEM a good thing or not? The data is mixed, from various things I have seen—plus, it is hard to accurately quantify this sort of evaluation. My feeling is that it is a good thing overall, as exposure to these topics might help some young people get involved with them and perhaps find their niche or calling. Even if it does not, at least it may give them some appreciation of the nature and challenges of engineering and science. (Part of the bigger issue of "is STEM a good thing?" relates to the unsettled question: Do we have a shortage of engineers, or not? The answer depends on who you ask.)

Even if they realize that STEM is not for them, it will hopefully give some of them some scientific "literacy" along with an appreciation of the core challenges of engineering. This is not a new problem; C.P. Snow addressed it in his useful but very hard-to-read book "The Two Cultures" way back in the 1950s.

Participants in STEM programs may also come to understand that engineering design is often largely about balancing tradeoffs in the face of constraints. While it is easy to criticize and complain "why didn't the designers of my latest gadget add such-and-such?" there are often considerations such as size, power, and cost which people without any technical exposure can't even begin to grasp. That's why any understanding of the engineering-design process is especially useful, since I am sure these students will not be reading Samuel Florman's excellent and readable book "The Existential Pleasures of Engineering" later in their schooling.

Why not add art to STEM? My view is that in the broadest sense, "art" already gets plenty of attention, if not actual hands-on time. After all, there are countless well-publicized and live-televised awards shows for music (such as Grammys and Country Music Awards), movies (Oscars), to cite just a few of the many such events—yet none for engineers and scientists that get even a tiny percentage of that attention, such as the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering. Don't art gallery openings, shows, and artists already get all sorts of attention, often with fawning coverage? Only the Nobel Prize gets any attention, and that's often for the Peace Prize as much as the science/technology awards.

Interestingly, there are art projects which involve significant STEM-related expertise, such as the many mega-projects by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, but that's not what interests these STEAM advocates. To me, it seems they want to get a ride (and grants, I am sure) by piggybacking on a modest but vital program which is giving the STEM disciplines some recognition and even respect—things which they get very little.

Perhaps I am somewhat envious and frustrated about the attention that "arts" already receives, compared to that given to scientists and engineers (except when mistakes or problems are the focus of mega-media coverage and congressional hearings).  So I say to art/STEAM movement: leave STEM alone, and get your own programs.

What's your view on the various STEM initiatives? How do you feel about attempts to add "art" to them? Tell us below.

Also see:
Engineering the Next Generation

Dean Kamen says tech needs superstars

How we can maybe get some engineers as celebrities?

Gagging on Gaga. . . .or, can we get just a little of your time and attention here, please?

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