The STEM to STEAM movement, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design and many institutions around the country, advocates for the necessary inclusion of Art and Design in curricula dedicated primarily to science, technology, engineering, and math. The resources and case studies compiled by these advocates demonstrate how exposure to the arts leads to more STEM patents, cultivates creativity in the design thinking behind today’s technology, and helps students from underrepresented cultural groups find footholds in the fields of science and engineering. I agree with all these findings and count myself among the STEM to STEAM advocates, but I also see a bigger reason for institutions of higher education to support and grow its arts offerings.
Adding the “A” to STEM does more than expand the minds of students and professionals. Art, and the Humanities more broadly, help to enhance STEM students’ awareness of the ethical complexities they will face in their careers after college. Pointing to the proliferation of algorithmic software applications, biotechnological advances in the treatment of fatal diseases, and technological solutions to the problem of climate change, Richard Lachman of Ryerson University argues that STEM students need arts education and exposure to the fine arts precisely in order to conceptualize the human lives affected by the technology they will help to build. Computer user interfaces, medical interventions, and renewable energy, he argues, aren’t fundamentally problems of technology. They are, rather, ethical problems that require the flexible and creative kind of ingenuity stimulated by artistic thinking. The arts, not the sciences, provide this ethical dimension and thus arts education in primary, secondary, and higher education must be a necessary component of twenty-first century education in the United States.
By teaching individuals about empathy, the nuances of interpersonal communication, and the stories too often forgotten by dominant historical narratives, the arts and arts-based education prepare students to participate in the larger socio-political questions surrounding the big issues of our times. I argue that educational institutions that foreground their offerings in science, technology, engineering, and math education have a responsibility to engage in and with the arts for the simple reason that without it the degrees being offered are entirely incomplete. To provide a college degree that is more than a slip of paper, colleges must create the conditions for on-campus experiences that challenge students to think about the local and global worlds in which they take part. That is, if arts education leads students to engage in the ethical dimension of STEM applications, then universities have an ethical imperative for supporting the arts on their campuses.
I do, however, recognize the challenges in implementing the vision that I am elaborating here. One reason that colleges and universities have a hard time fully understanding the ethical impact of arts education is that artistic thinking focuses not primarily on results but on process. The qualitative value of art making, furthermore, is extremely hard to measure, and thus the quantitative proof of art’s impact on STEM students is difficult to see in the short term. I believe, nonetheless, that the road to achieving the ethical enrichment sought by STEAM advocates such as Lachman and myself begins with a shift in perspective, one that touts process, play, and experimentation as much as concrete and easily repeatable learning outcomes. Universities will need to hire administrators with backgrounds in the arts and in arts education capable of translating the language of art-making into terms that all faculty and students at the university can understand. Likewise, I think that universities would do well to promote faculty members into administrative positions so as to promote unity among all university employees as the institution as a whole moves forward with large-scale projects such as those in the areas of art outreach and engagement.
While it might seem that STEAM curricula should first arise at the primary and secondary education levels in order to create a foundation for the type of change advocated by arts activists and educators like myself, I actually believe that colleges and universities should take the lead role. By demonstrating that the arts and the sciences can collaborate together in the transformative education of our nation’s young adults, universities will send the message that similar curricula are needed at the earlier stages of learning.