Add Art To STEM Education And Get STEAM
Omar Bashir
24 April 2018

Art and I

I have always remained technically inclined as I enjoyed maths and science at school and barely passed art. Art classes in school graded students for exact and aesthetic reproduction of subjects where my rather abstract representations struggled to make the pass mark. Perhaps if I would have been introduced to Picasso then, I would have not felt so inadequate at art. Perhaps if my art teachers would have been introduced to Picasso, they would have realised that art is not just about reproduction but also about representation and is certainly not about colouring between the lines. And this extended throughout humanities, creativity just could not be rewarded.

Full STEM Ahead!

Being a science-specialist school at the secondary level, I was glad to leave art (but not humanities) behind at the primary level and was excited to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The ambition was to grow up to be an engineer or a scientist which really seemed like creative professions when compared to art and humanities being taught at school.

A Nightmare Homework

But this joy was short-lived. In year 7, I was required to draw and explain the human digestive system in a science/biology homework. My several failed attempts at an exact and an aesthetic reproduction left me distraught and distressed. My mother came to my rescue and for the first time introduced me to representations through abstractions using a block diagram for the digestive system. It clearly indicated all the functions of the digestive system and their connections to each other. It definitely made me understand the digestive system a lot better. But just because this abstract representation was not an exact reproduction, and definitely not an aesthetic one, my homework was not accepted and I was asked to repeat it. 

Transferable Skills 

While I thought I was drifting further away from art especially after that disastrous homework, unbeknown, I had been introduced to two important tools that science, technology and engineering have borrowed from art and have been increasingly instrumental in scientific and technological progress. The first is representation, which is essential for communication of ideas and concepts. While most formal representations of scientific phenomena and discoveries are in their respective lingua franca, be it mathematical, textual or graphical, inspirational scientists and engineers have used creative techniques from artistic domains to communicate their achievements and knowledge to much wider audience. 

Second is abstraction, without which one is inundated with unnecessary detail and fails to observe the essentials. With the level of sophistication in science and technology today, STEM academics and practitioners can only make progress by abstracting away all except that is of immediate concern to them. Barring that would lead to a cognitive overload making any progress impossible. 

Why Art?

Exceptionally productive scientists and engineers have demonstrated that art can influence science and technology way more than simply facilitating aesthetics. Art provides perspectives that are closer to human concerns, sensibilities, ambitions and emotions as well as nature and the environment. These can at times be orthogonal to the perspectives of inventors and ignoring these have resulted in inventions with disastrous side effects that were initially invisible to the inventors.

Why Now?

Synergy of cross-disciplinary ideas has been the bedrock of most innovations. Progress is increasingly becoming as much innovation-led as it was invention-led till a few decades ago. Accelerated innovation is also more collaborative now than isolated or secretive, for example, the open source movement in software which is now influencing mechanical engineering and construction. Openness and cross-fertilisation of ideas has contributed to the success of brands like Apple which provide their users with experiences native to human perceptions and expectations in spite of being commercially rather exclusive (Good artists copy, great artists steal - Steve Jobs' interview).

What’s Happening?

Increasingly, technology companies are recruiting artists, many of them celebrities, to help inspire creativity amongst their technical staff or to at least provide a creative direction. Examples include joining Intel as director of creative innovation, Ashton Kutcher hired by Lenovo as product engineer and Lady Gaga advising Poloroid as their creative director. 

There is clearly a rush to follow Apple’s experience to cover decades of lost ground in creativity, however this model has a clear limitation. Apple recruited artists that were already programmers or were interested in becoming programmers and contributing actively in the development of its products. They understood and appreciated the power and limitations of technology at their disposal in implementing their thoughts and designs and could communicate with computer scientists and engineers in a common language and with abstractions that facilitated and accelerated development and progress.

So, Full STEAM Ahead Then?

Focus on STEM only for scientists and engineers can also be a reason for unnecessary complexity in many technological products and processes. Developing alternative perspectives, creative thinking, expression and communication in aspiring scientists and engineers may therefore help enhance their productivity even in core STEM activities. This may inspire them to develop and incorporate sophistication with simplicity. As a result, there is a growing need to recognise the role of art, not just focusing on STEM but on STEAM (Science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) as a foundation for future growth and development. 

Art education, particularly in schools, also has to rise above mere aesthetic reproduction to understanding, observing and representing their subjects from different perspectives. Traditional art education in schools may be a big reason for many naturally creative students not pursuing the subject further beyond school. With a strong focus on creativity, children need to be encouraged to think, think differently and to express their thoughts. Skills in reproducing subjects aesthetically can follow.

Omar Bashir is a software engineer, a simplicity evangelist and a perpetual inspiration seeker. He still cannot draw straight lines or colour within them and leans on his 9 year old daughter for creative direction.