STEM Vs STEAM

Infusing humanity into the sciences

Pramodh Senerath Yapa

HGS Prematunge

A couple of years ago 27-year-old Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a Sri Lankan-Canadian Ph.D. student in Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics at University of Alberta, Canada translated his jargon-ridden master’s thesis, titled ‘Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance’ to ‘Superconductivity: The Musical!’, a 11-minute self-explanatory video that won him the 2018 ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest. This stands testimony to the fact that Arts can fit snugly within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

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Yapa is not the only success story with a STEM-art background. Today’s most renowned innovators hold STEM-art mixed degrees. YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki majored in history and literature; Logitech chief executive Bracken Darrell majored in English; Slack founder Stewart Butterfield again majored in English; Airbnb founder Brian Chesky majored in fine arts; chief of Alibaba in China, Jack Ma holds a bachelor’s degree in English.

From STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and lately STREAM (science, technology, reading, wRiting, engineering, arts and mathematics) and STEMM (science, technology, engineering, music and mathematics), it’s easy to lose track on global educational trends. A few weeks ago this column featured two articles on STEM education. STEM is a curriculum which combines science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an interdisciplinary approach. In layman’s terms it couples academic theory and real-words lessons in the application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM disciplines include engineering, math, biology, psychology, economics, agricultural sciences, and other behavioral sciences.

STEM aspires to inculcate a variety of skills that are essential for success in the 21st Century, such as critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication, collaboration and entrepreneurship.

Of course combining such congruent subjects is not so daunting. Add an ‘A’ to the mix and the combination gets a bit jumbled to say the least. In case one missed the explanatory text in parenthesis above, ‘A’ stands for the Arts. The ‘A’ in STEAM represents liberal arts, language arts, social studies, physical arts, fine arts and music. If all these acronyms are confusing, you are not alone. STEM, once touted as the best educational reform, now seems outdated. But this has led to quite a controversial debate.

Ruth Cathen argues that Art is an ideal learning tool (courtesy twitter.com)
Ruth Cathen argues that Art is an ideal learning tool (courtesy twitter.com)

Cons

For STEM promoters it’s easy to see the added ‘A’ as an attempt to dilute STEM’s focus and objectives. Since the focus of STEM is to develop rigorous math and science skills through engineering, STEM subjects require intense focus by nature. Consequently, STEM promoters argue that student may find it difficult to focus on any other subject, or ‘STEM’ itself would lose its purpose. STEM promoters argue that those who try to promote STEAM are external to the STEM community and have only the best interest of art in mind.

Although art promoters argue that arts and humanities are suffering from the extra focus on STEM, required by a technologically advanced world that demands advanced technical skills, another faction argues that to squeeze art into the mix is to devalue it. Artist and educator-turned-STEAM-enthusiast Ruth Catchen begs to differ. Catchen is among a group that works to develop a STEAM program in US, Colorado.

According to Catchen, art is an ideal learning tool. She points out that engaging students’ strength in the arts ensures STEM success. She observes that arts enhances learning opportunities and greater STEM success for all types of learners even slow learners as art provides more opportunities for communication and expression. In fact, art ensures students’ exposure to STEM subjects regardless of technical ability and makes STEM more approachable and inclusive irrespective of students’ background, gender, or comfort level with technology.

Pros

If a student is looking to get into engineering or robotics, why does he or she need music or philosophy? Because, STEM alone misses several key components. While engineering offers guiding principles of structures, machines, and inventions and Mathematics instills analytical thinking, most employers also look for critical thinking skills, imagination and innovation in graduates, which can easily be inculcated through the arts.

Throwing arts into the mix places an emphasis on design principles and helps apply creative thinking to STEM projects. Educators believe that a combination of art, music and design elements help students to use both sides of the brain – analytical and creative – thereby producing the best thinkers.

American technology entrepreneur and engineering professor Vivek Wadhwa opines that the sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, and psychology provides a big advantage in design. “A psychologist is more likely to know how to motivate people and to understand what users want than is an engineer who has worked only in the technology trenches,” said Wadhwa of the science-art dichotomy.

The sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, and psychology provides a big advantage in design, says Vivek Wadhwa (courtesy en. Wikepidia.org)
The sense of empathy that comes from music, arts, literature, and psychology provides a big advantage in design, says Vivek Wadhwa (courtesy en. Wikepidia.org)

Too much focus on STEM and the resulting education system may end up producing students who are not well-rounded. In fact, according to a study funded by the US National Endowment for the Arts, knowledge of, and appreciation for the arts stemming from STEAM actually translates to better college opportunities. STEAM is increasingly hailed as a truly multidisciplinary, cross-curricular teaching approach.

How to incorporate

The trick to infusing arts into STEM is to explore where art naturally fits. Artistic expression can easily be incorporating into STEM. Students could be evaluated based on artistic skills used in presenting their STEM projects. For example, students can use computer graphics or videos when presenting STEM projects. They can also improve the quality, appearance or design of a product they developed for their STEM project through creative design inspired by art.

Even performing arts can be incorporated into STEM education. Sri Lankan-Canadian Ph.D. student of University of Alberta, Canada, Pramodh Senarath Yapa winning the ‘Dance Your Ph.D.’ contest is a case in point. If superconductivity can be translated to song and dance, then secondary school education should be a cake-walk. In fact art can solve a lot of engineering problems. But the focus of such an infusion should not be to teach art amidst STEM but to teach students to apply art in real world scenarios, because application leads to deeper learning.

Conclusion

Science is not the ultimate truth and is not spared from life’s messiness. Dominique Pestre, director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris refers to science as a, “…complex and messy business.” Author and consultant for New Scientist, Michael Brooks says that real world science is inconclusive and subject to revision.

Consequently, it’s safe to say that relying too much on the sciences is to the detriment of the human race. The student population must be prepared to deal with it, when science fails. Students must be taught to apply STEM subjects to real world problems. The arts, social sciences and humanities help to form social-emotional connections, bringing the human element to the equation. After all without the human element for whom would the sciences bother to solve problems?

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