STEM vs STEAM: the new debate

James Riley
Editorial Director

Last week’s Science Week highlighted the policy challenge of developing the so-called STEM skills in Australia.

Australia’s concern over STEM skills is shared across many major Western economies, but a countermovement has begun arguing the focus should be on STEAM as opposed to STEM.

Here the A refers to the Arts, a view propounded by one US group. Another, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design, uses the A to represent ‘Arts and Design’, (written as Art+Design to make the initialisation work).

One novel suggestion in Australia suggested STEM needed to be powered with STEAM by which he meant strategy, technology, entrepreneurship, accounting and management. There are no prizes for guessing that he is a professor of business. These business skills are needed in a start-up business, but they aren’t the wellspring of creativity.

Even the big scientific magazines, Scientific American and New Scientist, have been in on the STEM to STEAM bandwagon. The motivation for the move is supposedly to inspire creative thinking. One article started, “In the innovation field, a rebirth of Renaissance thinking is brewing. Scientists and engineers are engaging with the arts to think creatively.”

The idea that science and the arts are different can count in its lineage the 1950s lecture, and later book, by C.P.Snow entitled The Two Cultures. Snow observed:

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups. When I say the intellectual life, I mean to include also a large part of our practical life, because I should be the last person to suggest the two can at the deepest level be distinguished… Literary intellectuals at one pole-at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension-sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.

Unfortunately the title caught on far more than the substance. It became accepted, to a degree, that this bi-polar view was the natural order of things. Snow actually thought otherwise.

In fact, the separation between the scientists and non-scientists is much less bridgeable among the young than it was even thirty years ago. Thirty years ago the cultures had long ceased to speak to each other: but at least they managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf…There is only one way out of all this: it is, of course, by rethinking our education.

Being both a scientist and a novelist Snow himself bridged the cultures. Elsewhere he was more disparaging of non-scientists for being Luddites than of scientists for being uncultured.

In comments incredibly reminiscent of today’s debates about digital technology, Snow comments on Britain’s then position against China, noting:

It’s true enough, we start with a certain advantage. Not so much because of tradition, I think, as because all our children play with mechanical toys. They are picking up pieces of applied science before they can read. That is an advantage we haven’t made the most of. For the task of totally industrialising a major country, as in China today, it only takes will to train enough scientists and engineers and technicians. Will, and quite a small number of years.

Apart from anticipating by some 60 years the debates we have today about preparedness to compete on technology, Snow’s real point was that the divide between the arts and sciences was a cultural construction that could be eliminated.

Writing soon after Snow (and without reference to him) Liam Hudson in Contrary Imaginations explored the difference between students of the arts and science on, initially, IQ tests. This led him to work that identified a difference between students with high IQ and high Creatives. Further analysis resulted in the two classes being identified as convergers and divergers, respectively, and these in turn correlated to science and the arts.

Hudson concluded that;

Original work will come from convergers and divergers alike; and the convergence and divergence of an individual will not determine whether he is original but, if he is original, the field and the style in which his originality will manifest itself.

A modern view is that rather than people who are either divergent or convergent being creative in their own way, but that creativity requires both. One view that dates back to the 60s is that divergent thinking is required during all stages of the creative process; however, some degree of convergent thinking is also required, particularly during the elaboration phase of the creative process.

The difficulty with all this is an inherent presumption that people can be taught to be either divergent or convergent, or that just teaching the arts and sciences develops the two thinking styles.

The research says otherwise. Indeed recognising the difference between divergent and convergent thinking may help improve STEM education. For example, the difference between the divergent and convergent cognitive styles can be observed in student’s ability at certain mathematical tasks.

It would seem that teaching the Arts isn’t a simple pathway to unlocking creativity in our STEM students. This was the observation in an article in Education Week, however the same article suggested value in STEAM, by treating Art as an applied subject. This would include teaching Design where Art serves a practical function. Teaching performing arts, such as drama and speech fit naturally into the “Communications” stage of the engineering design process; and incorporating creative planning could encourage students to adopt a playful, inventive, artistic approach.

The simple fact is though, that all these things already happen as part of our K-10 curricula. Indeed technology itself is taught in a subject area called “Design and Technology.” The current challenge isn’t that there aren’t enough of the arts being taught, nor that the few strong STEM students we have don’t get enough arts education.

Our challenge is that we don’t have the students with the strong enough foundations, particularly in science and maths themselves.

To hark back to Snow’s observations, we haven’t been making enough of our advantages in the digital age, whereas countries like China and India are just training the scientists and engineers they need to totally transform their countries – often at our schools and universities.

To be clear, as they would say in the logic biz, STEM is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Art and Design is a part of the other requirements, but nowhere near enough important to change the focus from STEM to STEAM.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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