Putting STEM into the Arts

I thought I was done talking about the whole STEM vs. STEAM debate, but then it occurred to me that there’s one point that nobody seemed to be talking about.  This debate is often framed in terms of how the arts can benefit STEM.  No one ever seems to mention how STEM can benefit the arts.

About a month ago, SpaceX announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa will be going on a tourist trip around the Moon. Maezawa is an art collector, and he’s decided to take six to eight artists with him on a mission called “Dear Moon.”  According to the Dear Moon website, “A painter, musician, film director, fashion designer… Some of Earth’s greatest talents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they never have been before.”

Art is meant to reflect the world we live in. Therefore artists have a responsibility to understand, as best they can, our increasingly scientific and increasingly technological world.  It sounds to me like Maezawa gets this.  But aside from seeking out new sources of inspiration, there are also craft-related reasons why artists might want to be exposed to sciency stuff.

As an artist, when you’re thinking about how light and shadow play off a three-dimensional form, you’re sort of thinking about physics. When you’re mixing paints, trying to make sure they’ll adhere to your canvass, or trying to make sure the colors won’t fade over time, you’re dabbling in chemistry.  And obviously when you’re drawing a figure study (nude or otherwise), knowing a little about anatomy and biology will help you a lot.

None of the art teachers I had in school, and none of the art tutors my parents hired for me outside of school, really made this clear to me.  As I said in my post on Friday, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were totally different, unrelated things.  There was a long period of time in my life when I felt artistically stuck. I was unable to improve, and I didn’t understand why.

It wasn’t until I attended a seminar taught by James Gurney, the author and artist behind Dinotopia, that my art began to thrive again.  Why?  Because Mr. Gurney got me to start thinking scientifically about my art. I guess you could say he got me to stop thinking of myself as a left-brain-only kind of guy.

I can’t speak for every artist out there, but I know for me personally a more interdisciplinary approach to education would have done me a world of good.  And with that, I think I’ve said my peace about STEM and STEAM.  In my next post, I’ll move on to some other topic.

P.S.: While drawing that artist in space cartoon for today’s post, I thought of several reasons why painting in space like that would not work.  For one thing, I imagine those paints would do the whole freezing-and-boiling-at-the-same-time thing that other liquids tend to do in space.  If you can think of other challenges my artist/astronaut would have to deal with, please share in the comments!

Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part Two

In last week’s episode of Sciency Words, I told you about STEAM education, a variation of STEM education, but with an A added to represent the arts.  There’s a passionate and sometimes vitriolic fight happening in the education world about this.  If I had to pick sides, I guess I’d be on team STEAM; but I hate picking sides in something like this because this whole STEM vs. STEAM fight amounts to what I like to call a “failure of language.”

What I mean by that is that the whole STEM vs. STEAM thing is all about words.  Words, words, words.  Nothing more.  Every time we invent a new word, we create a sort of mental box.  To define our new word, we put certain things in the box, and we keep other things out.  To some extent, we have to do this; otherwise, language wouldn’t work.

But when we start sorting concepts into different mental boxes, we may inadvertently start erecting mental barriers as well.  As a child growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I never heard about STEM or STEAM.  Those terms hadn’t been invented yet.  Even so, young me came to understand that the arts and sciences were absolutely different from each other.  There were hard barriers between them.  I worry that an unintended consequence of STEM has been to make those kinds of barriers harder and taller, and I’d like to believe that STEAM might help break those barriers down.

As a matter of education policy and the allocation of grant money, maybe STEM is the more useful word to be using.  When we can take a bunch of big concepts (like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, along with all the interdisciplinary challenges that come with those subjects) and put them together in the same mental box, we suddenly have the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple ways.  STEM education is important.  The fact that this term exists and we all more-or-less understand what it means is a huge success of language.

But what I’ve seen of this STEM vs. STEAM debate strikes me as a case study of how a success of language can start to look like a failure.  I can think of other examples as well. Any time we start insisting that things (or worse, people) belong in separate boxes, we’re allowing mere words to create real divisions, and we’re making the communication of ideas between the two sides more difficult.

This may not qualify as a scientific term, or even as a linguistics term, but it’s a term I’m using more and more in all the seemingly pointless arguments our society keeps getting into these days:


Okay, I’m going to get off my philosophy of language soapbox.  Now it’s your turn.  What do you think of STEM, STEAM, and the ways language succeeds and/or fails us?

Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part One

I don’t think I’ve ever done a two-part episode of Sciency Words before, but this turned out to be a more complicated and controversial topic than I originally expected.  I have some strong feelings about this, but for now I’ll keep those feelings to myself and endeavor to be fair to both sides of the debate over:


Our story begins in the early 2000’s.  Studies were being published.  Important meetings were happening at the National Science Foundation.  There was a growing concern about the state of education in the United States.  Children were not learning what they needed to know in certain specific fields.  It seemed that a whole generation of young people would not be prepared for the high-tech job market of the future.

Thus, the concept of STEM education was born.  STEM, of course, is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  There’s been a strong push in recent years to get children excited about these subjects, to get them interested in pursuing STEM careers, and rightfully so.  Our world is changing, and children should be prepared for that.

But has this emphasis on STEM gotten out of hand? Has STEM led to a deemphasizing or even a devaluing of the arts?  Some worry that it has, and this has led to a new push to turn STEM into STEAM, with the A representing art.

The argument goes that the arts, or at least certain key aspects of the arts, are just as important in the high-tech world of tomorrow as the more traditional STEM fields.  As an example, think of a smartphone.  Think of the design team that figured out what the phone should look like, what it should feel like in your hand.  Think of the people who designed the user interface, with all those little icons that show you what your phone can do, and all those musical dings and beeps and whistles that let your phone tell you you got a text message, or that your download in complete, or that your battery is running low.  All those little niceties of design—it takes artists to do that.

But some people really are not happy about getting the arts mixed up with STEM.  Yes, the arts are important for a well-rounded education.  Yes, there’s a place for artists in the jobs market of the future.  But remember how our story began.  There was a growing concern that children were not getting the education they needed in certain specific fields. This was a crisis in the American education system, and the crisis is not over yet.  STEM education is only now starting to get the attention—and also the grant money—it so desperately needs.  We need to stay focused on the biggest problem areas in our education system.

Now I try to keep these blog posts fairly short.  I hope I did an okay job summarizing both sides of this issue, but if you think I left important points out, please feel free to yell at me in the comments below.  I’d especially love to hear from educators who may be on the front lines of this debate.

As for my own opinion… I guess if I had to choose sides, I’d be on team STEAM.  But I hate choosing sides in something like this.  From my perspective, more than anything else, this fight looks like a failure of language.  I’ll explain what I mean by that in part two.