STEM is incredibly valuable, but STEAM makes it better

December 15, 2014 at 8:22 am 14 comments

I am sympathetic to this argument for the value of STEAM (STEM+Art), rather than just STEM.  I strongly believe in the value of creative expression in learning STEM subjects.  That’s core to our goals for Media Computation.  I believe that the STEAM perspective is why MediaComp has measurably improved motivation, engagement, and retention.

As a researcher, it’s challenging to measure the value of including art in learning STEM. I’m particularly concerned about the argument below.  Singapore and Japan are less creative because they have less art in school?  If we include more art in our schools, our students will be more innovative?  If we’re already more innovative, and we have too little art classes, why should we believe that adding more art will increase our innovation?

But STEM leaves out a big part of the picture. “It misses the fact that having multiple perspectives are an invaluable aspect of how we learn to become agile, curious human beings,” Maeda said. “The STEM ‘bundle’ is suitable for building a Vulcan civilization, but misses wonderful irrationalities inherent to living life as a human being and in relation to other human beings.” A foundation in STEM education is exceptional at making us more efficient or increasing speed all within set processes, but it’s not so good at growing our curiosity or imagination. Its focus is poor at sparking our creativity. It doesn’t teach us empathy or what it means to relate to others on a deep emotional level. Singapore and Japan are two great examples. “[They] are looked to as exemplar STEM nations, but as nations they suffer the ability to be perceived as creative on a global scale.” Maeda said. Is the United States completely misinformed and heading down the wrong track? Not entirely. Science, technology, engineering and math are great things to teach and focus on, but they can’t do the job alone. In order to prepare our students to lead the world in innovation, we need to focus on the creative thought that gives individuals that innovative edge.

via STEM is incredibly valuable, but if we want the best innovators we must teach the arts – The Washington Post.

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  December 15, 2014 at 8:55 am

    The STEM fields — including Computing and Systems — already are arts (but education, and to an appalling extent, academia in general, have missed this).

    When we started the Vivarium program in the ’80s, we (via Apple) used part of the research money to restore the Arts and Music programs that the citizens of California had recently removed from schools via referendum. The basic notion was that art is not just a process but a perspective, and that it would help both children and their teachers to have art as an integral part of the environment. We thought this would make it much easier to recognize science and math and computing, etc., as deep arts in themselves. (And this seemed to be the case.)

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  December 15, 2014 at 8:57 am

      Hi Alan,

      I’ve read interviews with you where you say that you see no distinction between sciences and arts, but I haven’t really understood it. How do you define art such that it encompasses STEM fields?

      • 3. alanone1  |  December 15, 2014 at 9:23 am

        Hi Mark

        Both of the main meanings of “art” obtain. The root of the word is the Latin “ars” which has the same meaning as the Greek root “techne”, and both mean “that which humans make”. It is also a descriptive term: “to make with art”, “the builders exhibited their art”, etc.

        The transcendent sense of the term has to do with esthetics and how it affects human beings. This is a co-creation of artifact and appreciator, and the state of the latter is enormously important. A large part of “Art” with a capital “A” are the sensibilities of the artistic audience (which as those in the theater know are active participants not passive lumps to have emotions shoved into them).

        The poet Coleridge was also a theater reviewer, and once wrote “People go to bad theater hoping to forget, but they go to good theater tingling to remember”.

        Arthur Koestler has written about the larger area in “The Act of Creation”, and pointed out that one of the major elements of creativity and “the new” is that one is prompted to jump into a different context from where one was. The emotional reactions from this surprise are mixtures of HA HA, A HA!, and AHHHHH.

        All of these constitute kinds of wake-up calls mixed with lowered guards, learning, and often the vulnerabilities and emotions usually associated with childhood.

        If we ask questions about beauty and art in the STEM+ subjects we see them everywhere in every field. One could argue quite successfully that science and technology were the major art forms of the 20th century.

        But again, much of the artistic experience has to do with how and what emotions are invoked in each participant. We certainly have to look no further than the great practitioners in each STEM+ field for deep expressions of artistic feeling.

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  December 16, 2014 at 11:20 am

          Thanks, Alan. (Sorry for the delay — was advising on the BASICS project yesterday in Chicago.) Let me try to say it back in different words, please:

          • Art and STEM have in common that they are crafted, carefully created by humans.
          • Art and STEM both aim to have an impact on their audience. STEM isn’t unemotional. Good scientific results should provoke reaction in the audience, should encourage a change in perspective and understanding.
          • Both are about changing the receiver, which is not a passive process. Neither art nor STEM have an impact on the audience without the audience actively engaging in sense-making.
          • Both require accepting ideas and emotions that we may find difficult.
          • Did I get the main idea? I like this very much — I’ve just purchased a copy of the Koestler book and put it in my to-read pile.

          • 5. alanone1  |  December 16, 2014 at 1:21 pm

            My first sentence in the first comment was that the STEM fields -are- arts. It’s not what “art” and “STEM” have in common.

            Some of the confusion here comes from a “colonization” of the term “art” by what used to be (self-called) the “fine arts” (by the way, they left out music!)

            The main idea is they are inclusive rather than “exclusive that happen to have properties in common”.



  • 6. alfredtwo  |  December 15, 2014 at 9:09 am

    For a variety of reasons all elective classes are struggling for money, students and a place in the curriculum. In many schools Art and STEM programs (especially Computer Science) are competing in what is largely a zero sum game. It shouldn’t be this way but it it. With STEM getting a lot of attention these days tieing Art in with them seems to many people like a way of getting in the game.

    This is a natural consequence of the way we stovepipe topics in education. Math is separate from Physics even though Physics needs math. English is separate from Social Studies even though the skills taught in English are necessary for studying Social Studies. And so on.

    Cross curricula programs ebb and flow in and out of favor as the winds (and money) ebb and flow.

  • 7. Peter Donaldson  |  December 15, 2014 at 10:37 am

    One possible side effect of studying various expressive arts is a greater ability to mentally visualise what you want to create and the gradual improvement of a variety of different spatial abilities.

    Mark pointed out in a previous blog post some research by Sheryl Sorby that suggested a link between certain spatial abilities and performance in a 1st year programming orientated CS course.

    “Art” may be helpful not because of some wooly notion of understanding the wondrous illogicality of life but because expressive arts tend to focus on improving these types of skills.

  • 8. Barry Webster  |  December 15, 2014 at 3:38 pm


    The Washington Post quote expresses the common misconception that human creativity is only expressed through art. Creative solutions to computer science, science, engineering, technology, and mathematics problems happen every day. That said, a complete quality education does go beyond these fields, just as it requires them.

    A power of media computation is the visual feedback students get from their programs. They know immediately when they have the program correct. Visual results also motivate. (My students have responded positively to similar approaches going all the way back to HyperCard.) Visual results may lead to computational creativity, artistic creativity, or both. Whether they do is an interesting question.

    Barry Webster

  • 9. Jay Anderson  |  December 15, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    The article cites a study (MSU) where more time in early arts education correlated with later success in STEM fields. (Without reading the study I assume this is controlled for the family’s social and economic background and other factors.) So I hope the argument is instead:
    – Sufficient early arts education leads to later success/innovation in STEM fields.
    – Early arts education for many is unavailable or too little.
    – Therefore increasing available arts education for those that lack will lead to more success/innovation in STEM fields.

    I agree that the argument still isn’t great and lacks detail (what level of early arts education is sufficient? At what ages does it make the most difference? etc.), but at least it has some logic now. I work as a programmer, but am still active in some orchestras in my area so this is interesting to me. I would say that early music education at least it isn’t an especially creative endeavor (at first). You learn to read music (a new language) and interpret it on your chosen instrument. In some sense it’s similar to early CS education: learning a language and how to use it.

    (The concept of STEM has always kind of annoyed me. I strongly believe that the sciences and math are important and that including the arts is also important, but let’s not forget others as well like English and languages, history, civics, finance, etc.)

    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  December 16, 2014 at 11:23 am

      I agree that there’s a logic. I disagree that they can make a causal argument. Lot of things happen between early childhood and adult careers. It was the arts education? You already mentioned the possibility that the family was rich enough to live in a place that had arts education. What about the possibility that the family valued the arts education, and that perspective and acceptance was the critical part of success in STEM? The finding may be completely correct. It’s really hard to support it with a study.

  • 11. Harry  |  February 17, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Wrote this as a response to some professor bemoaning the lack of humanities in STEM. But I think this may be a good place to post this too.

    It’s all very easy complain about the lack of humanities in engineering education, so here is an idea, how about proposing a solution? If you could redesign engineering and natural sciences curricula to be more humanity oriented, how would you do it? What would you add or remove. Already STEM majors are spending nearly 30% of their degree time taking humanities courses, what more should be required of them?

    Also, as engineer myself with over 15 years experience in the field (following BS and MS degrees), I find my colleagues and myself quite capable of humanistic thinking. By way of several jobs in the engineering arena, I now find myself managing a genetics engineering research group. It is probably the most interesting and important work I have ever done.

    This may come as a shock to you but we engineers are very cognizant of our social responsibilities. The amount of discussion my group of highly qualified and extremely talented engineers (who come from 8 countries), has on the ethics and morality of our work would surprise most humanists. There is always the knowledge that what we are doing may not always have ethical uses, but should we stop doing it? Should we stop working on technologies that will help cure presently incurable diseases simply because the technology may also be used in a way that can hurt humanity?

    The same science and technology that gave us the atomic bomb also gives us nuclear power, medical diagnostics isotopes, radiotherapy, x-ray/ct scans, and host of other uses that have helped make life better for humanity.

    Ultimately what we (and others like us create) can as with anything else created by engineers, will have both positive and negative uses. It will be up to society at large and elected leaders to decide how to use it. Don’t forget that it engineers and physicists working on the manhattan project who first voiced objections to the use of atomic weapons, highlighting its dangers. That the bomb was built may be called a failing of science and engineering, but that it was used was a failing of the humanists, who chose to ignore all the warnings and pleas of the STEM sorts (Einstein, Oppenheimer etc) who were opposed to the bomb being used.

    The thing about humanities (literature, music etc) is that you do not need to be taught how to enjoy it. I never took a class in music but love Mozart. Never took a class in Persian, but by a happy accident read translations of some Persian poems, and got interested enough to try and learn some Persian to see if I could read some poems in that language. Have been doing it off and on for 4 years now, and its been an amazing journey (again please note a journey for which I never took a formal class in college!). Almost all STEM types have humanities interests, be it literature, art, music, or philosophy, particularly as we age and are forced by the nature of our jobs to recognize the social implications of what we are doing.

    The beauty of a STEM education is that it prepares you to learn anything you want. This is where a humanities education fails. How many literature majors could one day (possibly years after they have graduated), decide they wanted to learn how microelectronics work, or be awed enough by the beauty of genetics or cosmology to pick a seriously technical book/s on the subjects and be in a position to make head or tail of it?

    Its not STEM that needs more arts and humanities, but humanities and arts that need more STEM! If you look at the history of STEM education, its products accomplished truly great things despite not having been given the supposed benefits of a STEAM education. STEM to STEAM is nothing more than a cash grab by the A. With billions being funnelled to STEM, A just wants a piece of the pie. The point of all the STEM funding is to produce more STEMs! Not more As!

  • 13. Harold  |  March 1, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    Sorry, have to vehemently disagree with this premise. As an Engineer (BS and MS degrees), with over 15 years work experience in the field. I can use my own experience to say that STEM education should remain STEM with a little A thrown in on the side. I fear that introducing A into STEM would so water down the rigor that STEM requires, that it will have the very opposite effect of what everyone says it will.

    The whole point of a STEM education is to prepare students in the theoretical underpinnings, and first principles of logic, and rigor in mathematics biology, chemistry, and physics that underlie all of engineering and technology.

    You cannot use music to teach calculus, you do not need to know how to play the piano to understand what a fourier transform is. Mozart and Beethoven were brilliant musicians, but their math skills are debatable. Einstein was a brilliant theoretical physicist, but an indifferent violin player at best. He played the violin not because it made him a better physicist, but as a means to relax.

    If you look at the time between 1940 – 1980, quite possibly the most creative period in US STEM fields, a time when almost all the most important STEM discoveries were made in the US, the people doing these were educated in pure STEM fields.

    These people did not need A in their education to solve the NPN problem in electronics, or create more efficient transistors, better jet engines, larger, safer aircraft, novel medical diagnostic devices and treatments for hitherto incurable diseases, new materials that have made life better for millions (often in ways that we dont even notice anymore!).

    Without having a STEAM education, these STEM geeks were able to take humanity to the moon several times, build submarines to explore the deepest parts of oceans, create cures for diseases, and so much more. Why mess with what has been shown to work so well?

    In a way there is an arrogance about those who want to bastardize STEM into STEAM. This belief that they alone know how to be creative and innovative. Actually, thats quite funny when you compare how many companies in STEM fields are started up by STEM educated people vs people educated in the A’s.

    Have you ever seen a team of engineers tackle a seemingly intractable problem and come up with an “innovative” solution? This may come as news to the A types, but creating innovative solutions is what we STEM types do every day! Its ingrained in our DNAs. The latest, greatest, technologies do not just magically appear out of thin air. That new generation MRI machine did not come about because some artist dreamed it up, it came about because some engineers got together and improved on the old model machine in very creative ways.

    I wonder when was the last time that an engineer thought “Let me draw upon shakespeare or picasso to see how to make the focusing lens on a CT machine more accurate so that the patients gets less x-ray exposure” of “gee I wonder what Mozart has to say about the material i am trying to develop to house the new generation of jet engines.” Or, “would this exo-skeleton I am building to help paraplegics walk, will be so much more efficient if only I knew a little more about art, as opposed to all this engineering knowledge.”

    Proponents of STEAM education are mostly non-STEM types who don’t have have a clue what makes the STEM world really work. They see STEM people as some sort of brain dead automatons who need to be rescued from themselves and be told what good for them. This is pure arrogance.

    Another shock for non-STEM types, everything we STEMs do takes into account the end user, and how our creations will be used. That exo-skeleton example I mentioned above required teams of engineers working with paraplegics, and doctors for years, studying the mechanics of motion in order to make the exo-skeleton as user friendly as technology permits while still keeping costs reasonable.

    STEM to STEAM is nothing more than a cash grab. Billions are being invested in STEM education programs, and of course the arts (you know the people who claim to be the guardians of society) can’t abide the fact that they are being left out, so they will do anything to not just get a piece of the action, but actually take over control of the action. As everyone knows art is what makes physics work!

    In light of the fact that the artsy types have always looked down upon the techies and also the fact that for at least since the 1980s, the post-modernist movement (driven largely by arts and humanities) has tried to discredit everything scientific, I fear for the future of STEM if it becomes STEAM. STEM funding should be used exclusively for STEM education, with special programs and curricula developed for STEM subject talented students. At the K-12 level, STEM subject talented students would have separate programs for Math, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, but for all other subjects would take the same curricula as non-STEM subjects like literature, arts etc.

    Using STEM money to create STEAM programs is a total waste, it will result in watering down of STEM focused education and will not benefit anyone, indeed it will not even serve its own goals!

  • […] Arts, and Mathematics).  I just recently wrote a blog post saying that STEAM was a good idea (see link here).  I’m not convinced that I’m at odds with Gary’s point.  I suspect that the […]


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