by Jesse Z. Melton
Ignoring the extremist perspective that STEM is actually all M, each of these disciplines share a common attribute: linearity. That linearity is what makes them so powerful. They follow a formulaic, procedural path that ends with a
definitive result that’s either right or wrong. The result can be
reached by anyone familiar with the rules. That same linearity
is also their greatest weakness.
We don’t live in a linear world. Sure, the universe can be
modeled with linear techniques, but the universe where we
actually live, eat, sleep, and buy is defined by our senses.
Highly subjective inputs with infinite interpretations that we
manipulate with art.
Not art like paintings by Dutch Old Masters (although they
have a place in the discussion as well), but art in general. Art
as nonlinear thinking that binds linear concepts to obtain a
result that can never be reached procedurally. That’s why
two people with the same camera, with the same settings,
simultaneously taking a picture of the same thing will end up
with two radically different photos.
Art teaches critical analysis and problem solving. Unfettered
and untrammeled perspectives that are never right or wrong,
just different. Art is the underlying driver of innovation. Without
art the immutable rules governing linear subjects all lead to
the same place.
This fact is easily illustrated in the electronics department at
your local big box store: Within any product category, the design,
functionality, overall quality, and aesthetics converge as price
points drop. All the technical aspects, the STEM subjects, have
been utilized and the rules followed with great precision. Nevertheless, all the products are essentially identical — and they suck.
But up there on the top shelf things are different. The very
same STEM knowledge was applied, yet it’s impossible to not
: The Case For adding arT
in TeChniCal CurriCulums
realize what you’re looking at is an altogether different thing.
Art played a central role in every aspect of creating that product.
It was created with STEAM: Science, Technology, Electronics,
Art, and Math. STEAM that people will happily pay for.
STEAM isn’t restricted to tangible goods. Art is the supreme
medium of communication. Whether you’re an employee trying
to push your message upstream and get the attention of decision
makers or if you’re an executive at a startup on the hunt for outside investment, your success rides on how well your audience
understands you. Show your potential investor a spreadsheet
and if they don’t jump out the nearest window you’re probably
talking to a hologram. Show them a well-designed chart that
conveys the same information and you might be on your way to
funding. Data writes the music, but it’s art that delivers the song.
All the above is to underline the fact a STEM curriculum is
intended to give students the ability to compete in an increasingly technical world. But that’s not going to happen with the
current approach. Because the STEM subjects are linear and
follow fixed rules we’re simply creating ambulatory calculators
who might survive in the workplace. That’s a pretty low bar.
We can use art to create STEAM that will fuel the next generation of workers, thinkers, and creators. But there are challenges that must be met. One of those challenges, possibly
the biggest, is the way we teach STEM subjects. I don’t mean
changing the metrics to work statistical voodoo on student
proficiency reports. I mean real change that benefits the students for their entire lives.
Ask a child why she doesn’t like math. The answer is al-
most certain to be “I’m never going to use that crap.” That’s
not an unreasonable response, considering the child’s brief
existence up to this point. It’s impossible to out-logic a child
for that same reason.
Perpetually missing from the public education system is
evident applicability in lessons in technical subjects. It’s not
an unrecognized problem, but the solutions are always absurd
and fail to acknowledge the uncluttered logic of children.
Most readers will remember the WWII-era solutions to the
problem: asking kids to calculate what time two people traveling in opposite directions at known speeds will pass each
other. Those word problems stretched applicability even for
adults and were absolutely meaningless to a child. Then the
solutions were centered around games. Kids like games. Yeah,
but only if they’re fun. Mathopoly? No.
Now we have substituted modular STEM concept building
systems. That’s fancy talk for a crap toy that comes disassembled and is only not a brick if you buy an extension module and
install the app on your phone. That’s not educational. That’s
consumerism bootcamp bogged down in the quagmire of ethical
and moral issues surrounding children having smartphones.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that now is the
time for the the STEAM conversation to move out of breakout
rooms and sidebars and occupy center stage. Action now can
still save a bunch of kids from an imaginary, linear existence.
Jesse Z. Melton is a process consultant focusing on machine
and workholding design and development with over 20 years of
engineered design experience. He is an advocate of strong in-house
R&D, opponent of misplaced labor and constructor of criticisms
aimed at an educational system that teaches how to buy not do.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By now, everyone knows STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. But our guest columnist
argues turning it into STEAM is the way to really power the movement.
The following is a guest column submitted by
a NED reader. To submit your own, email
John.Hitch@informa.com or Travis.Hessman@informa.com.