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STEM to STEAM

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On Valentine’s Day in Manhattan, amid the already bright lights of Times Square, a 10-foot-tall glowing heart sculpture consisting of 400 transparent, LED lit, acrylic tubes curiously sits. The transparent tubes refract the lights of Times Square, creating a cluster of lights around the heart. The hovering heart appears to pulsate as its tubes sway in the wind. When people touch one of the heart-shaped sensors, the heart glows brighter and beats faster as the energy from their hands is converted into more light.

Over the last nine years, the Times Square Alliance has invited architecture and design firms to submit proposals for a romantic public art installation celebrating Valentine’s Day. This installation, entitled “BIG LOVES NYC” and made by the Bjarke Ingels Group, neatly exemplifies the cross-section where science and art meet.

Today in K-12 education, there is an ongoing debate as to whether the sciences and arts should be meeting at all. At the heart of this conversation are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (the inclusion of art + design) learner spaces. STEM instruction allows students to be involved in collaborative workshops that apply science and math to engineering design processes to creatively problem solve real-world scenarios. While this is an excellent pedagogical practice, the exclusion of art in these processes should not be glossed over.

In response to the omission of art in the ever-popular STEM programs, John Maeda from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) founded STEM to STEAM. STEM to STEAM’s primary focus is to include art into the core subjects of technology, engineering and math. What started out as a single school initiative at RISD, quickly gained alliances from some of the most prestigious institutions in America: Brown, MIT, Yale, Rutgers University, Boston University, the University of Michigan, the New School and Harvard. This coalition of schools started a student-led effort to ignite communications between disparate fields in academia, business and thought. Since 2013, they’ve been creating catalogues that describe the types of experiments and projects that each of these universities have undertaken in the service of promoting interdisciplinary participation.

Regrettably, art and design programs in public schools are oftentimes the first to be scaled back or cut, and the time art educators get to spend with students continues to decline. Incorporating art into the other core classes is important for K-12 students from both a personal and professional standpoint. Art and design classrooms are places that promote collaborative learning while giving students a platform for open-ended problem solving, personal expression and reflection. This helps students develop a more complete sense of self, and allows them to articulate something meaningful about our visual culture. From a professional standpoint, the kind of critical thinking skills that are inspired by art and design classes have been proven time and time again to improve scores in math, science, and reading.

Art and science, though different in their intended outcomes, use similar processes to achieve their goals. Art, like engineering, is concerned with finding answers to problems and seeking visual solutions using the design process. The “BIG LOVES NYC” sculpture could not have been made without artists and engineers (and engineers as artists) working together collaboratively to create solutions. There is a lot to be learned from all the similarities and differences in the fields under the STEAM umbrella, and I believe that when they are combined, a more accurate reflection of real-world project deliveries and working relationships are reflected with this instruction.

Jeff Lane

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