STEM vs. STEAM
While it may be unclear which acronym you should use, what is clear is the link between art and science
Maybe you know that inventor Nikola Tesla gave old Thomas Edison a run for his money in the electric light race, but have you seen his drawings showing how current works? Likewise, maybe you’ve seen Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious Mona, but did you know he’s the guy who invented parachutes?
Whether it’s called STEM—which is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – or STEAM—which is all of that with the addition of Art – there’s no getting away from the fact that art is inextricably linked to science and innovation. Yet there is still often a disconnect with people believing art and science lie on opposite ends of a spectrum.
“I get asked this all the time, ‘when will the STEM Discovery Lab change its name to the STEAM Discovery Lab?’” said Emily Kerr, coordinator of the STEM Discovery Lab at UNH. “We don’t have it in our name, but I personally believe that the arts are a huge component and an important component and should be integrated.
“Just like STEM is huge, so is art. There’s just a lot of ways they could and should overlap because science is a creative process.”
Which is why, said New Hampshire Dept. of Education Science Education Consultant Nate Greene, the state often uses the terms interchangeably, which he admits can be confusing. But he said that’s largely because no one has really settled on a universal definition for STEM or STEAM.
He explains that some think of it as the just the study of pure science and traditional topics like chemistry and physics, while others see it as the study of engineering, computer science and robotics; in other words-subjects that have more obvious need for creativity and innovation and thus the arts.
“The state supports all of it,” Greene said. “They are all supported equally across the board.”
The introduction of the concept of STEAM, which came out a few years after STEM, was a way to not only remind people that the arts were integral to science, but also to show that educators needed to integrate these subjects in a more cognitive way. Greene said that is something that has been happening across the state over the past decade or so.
“Especially when we’re looking at elementary school,” Greene said. “The idea is to get more science into the school day — to expand the time for it. And oftentimes the best way to do that is to integrate that into other subjects.”
So for example, he said if a teacher is working with a student on literacy and English and is attempting to teach informational writing or reading informational text, a great way to bring science into English is to have students read or write about that topic while they are trying to learn these literacy skills.
“I think in the past 10 to 15 years, we started to get really good at doing that in school,” Greene said. “So as a result, the arts saw that as a model to also integrate their subjects. Because again if you’re looking at elementary school one of things we’re always trying to do is how do we get more art into the hands of kids? How do we expand art? And one way is to integrate it into other subjects. So adding the ‘A’ into STEM is one way to emphasize that art doesn’t have to be a standalone subject, that you can integrate it into other subjects like science and technology and engineering and math. And I would say that we should add literacy there as well.”
This is not just a feel-good concept; it’s practical, said Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire. Creativity and tapping into artistic thinking is the key to designing new technologies.
“Sometimes you discover new things from being creative and open-minded and the arts helps you do that, kind of explore a different side of your skill set,” Gittell said.
He said that by being creative and experimenting with different ways of putting materials together to form new shapes and new substances, you discover ways to do things and can even design new technologies that can help people.
In fact, said Greene, a robotics company in South Korea started with an artistic vision to create a new technology. The company enlisted the help of sci-fi movie makers to design what they thought a large robot should look like. The engineers then took those drawings and figured out the technology needed to bring that robot off the page and into real life.
“We’re seeing that more and more in industry,” Greene said. “We talk about form following function, but sometimes function follows form. And we’re starting to see this in the world of industry where you see engineering companies, tech companies partnering with artists because more and more we’re finding that the tools and technology that get into the hands of your everyday consumer have a level of artistic expression to them that you know things can’t just be easy to use, people want to enjoy using them.”
Melanie Plenda is an award-winning freelance journalist and mom based in Keene. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic.com, The Daily Beast, American Baby, and Parents.com among other media outlets.