STEM is valuable, but the arts make innovators with STEAM

We’ve all heard it before, we are facing another crisis. This time it’s one of mammoth proportions, and not the wooly kind. Public education isn’t making the cut as high-tech jobs across the nation go unfilled. What’s a country to do? Knowing this challenge will only compound with time, policy leaders have acted. To compete in a global market place, our leaders are doing everything in their power to push a focus on STEM education. Sure, it’s great to see our leaders unite under a common goal, but are they going the wrong way down the field? STEAM is the answer.

In 2011 the governor of my home state of Iowa, Terry Branstad, signed an executive order creating a STEM advisory council.

“An increased focus in science, technology, engineering and math will lead to higher achievement and better career opportunities,” Branstad said. He’s not alone. Within the last few years, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a bill furthering STEM education and governors in Utah and Oklahoma have also got in on the action. Some states like Massachusetts announced initiatives as early as 2009.

President Obama has put a focus on STEM education with the White House’s Educate to Innovate initiative. The campaign is more than just a federal initiative, but has the combined effort of non-profits, corporations and science and engineering societies, garnering $700 million in public-private partnerships, getting 100 top CEOs on board and launching a new non-profit called Change the Equation and others.

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is believed to be the answer for our high tech job shortage. It’s refreshing to see so many of our leaders finally uniting under a common goal. They see the value of developing our students into leaders who will solve challenging problems in our world and that’s a good thing.

“Making things faster, cheaper, better, bolder is what STEM does to many industries. The computer industry is the one we look to today most commonly, but before that it was the automotive industry, the defense industry and any industry involving the business opportunities inherent to achieving economies of scale,” said John Maeda, a graduate from MIT, former President of Rhode Island School of Design, author of Laws of Simplicity and partner at venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers.

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.

To learn where that edge comes from, Michigan State University observed a group of its honors college graduates from 1990 to 1995 who majored in the STEM fields. Their research uncovered that of those students, the ones who owned businesses or filed patents had eight times the exposure to the arts as children than the general public. The researchers concluded that these results are important to note in our rebuilding of the U.S. economy. “Inventors are more likely to create high-growth, high-paying jobs in our state and that’s the kind of target we think we should be looking for” said Rex LaMore, director of Michigan State’s Center for Community and Economic development.

The arts being the major brain booster and spark behind creativity is overwhelming and shouldn’t be a complete shock. It should be obvious, the arts need to take a seat at the table in this national education reform effort and bright students such as Sarah Pease are attempting to pull that seat up closer. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, she led the STEM to STEAM club at RISD. Leaders like Sarah aren’t suggesting we completely do away with STEM, instead, they are suggesting only that we add a letter to the acronym. Adding an “A” spells STEAM and includes the element that has gone unnoticed in this education reform discussion.

“Our contemporary world craves empathy and understanding in the face of an intensified onset of technological advances and a decline in direct interpersonal communication. Art and design can offer just that,” Pease told me.

Are the problems of tomorrow ones that can be addressed from STEM or STEAM? Ask South Korea. Often praised for its sky-high testing scores, beating the United States in math and science, they may know a thing or two about education. Despite testing well however, their students had a lack of interest in the fields that they were leading. Suddenly, with their own crisis on their hands, they sought out to find why was happening. They discovered the science and math fields, while beneficial, were too far removed from any real-world application. Their kids were bored. By integrating science and technology with the arts, in 2011 the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology adopted STEAM.

Just as Michigan State has demonstrated alongside countless studies, students involved in quality music programs have shown higher participation with lower drop out rates, higher scores on standardized testing, 22 percent better English scores, 20 percent better in math and have demonstrated better problem-solving skills.

Pease’s efforts among many others are apparently working. The STEM to STEAM movement has legs and is getting some much-deserved attention. Pease informed me there is already a bipartisan Congressional caucus with about 20 House members, with the sole purpose of integrating the arts into STEM. Texas Instruments recently committed five million dollars to launch a STEAM academy in Plano, Texas and other companies have seen the light as well. “Industry leaders such as Boeing, Nike, Apple, Intel, 3M, and many more cite design and/or creativity to be a priority for their companies when seeking innovative solutions,” said Pease. She even has the numbers to back it up broken down by region.

Focusing on STEM as a tool to fill high-tech jobs and grow innovation is insufficient. The arts are more than just an activity that students enjoy at school or a fun activity that can keep students occupied. The arts are more than entertainment or enjoyment, and certainly, provide more opportunity beyond professional musicianship. The power of the arts (and yummy Raisin Brahms) may be the very thing we are missing.

As the kiddos go back to school, knowledge of science, technology, engineering and math are certainly important, but their imagination, creativity and how they interact with others is critical. Like any flower, the stem is valuable but the bloom on top inspires our imagination — and that’s what people connect to.



Thank you for contacting me!


Why no one cares about your great idea

Your idea was ignored by your boss or client? That organization you reached out to shut you down? Maybe the press? The better idea is crushed often. Join my free list, and you'll learn how to hack their attention.