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From STEM to STEAM: Why the Inclusion of Arts & Diversity is Important

The acronym STEM has been around since the early 2000s, and before it was STEM, it was known as SMET. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. It is a broad term used to group together these four academic disciplines. Typically the term is used to describe an education curriculum, but it also describes the job fields that include these four academic areas of study. STEM education combines the four disciplines by integrating them into a single teaching method centered on real-world applications. In recent years there has been a call for including arts in the STEM acronym and making it STEAM. Diversity in STEM is also increasingly important to consider when discussing the subject. According to a 2017 study, it is estimated that LGBT people are approximately 20% less represented in STEM fields than expected. Additionally, LGBT people are underrepresented in STEM compared to their heterosexual counterparts, according to a 2018 Science Advances research. However, the study did not report on transgender students. Diversity in the study of the STEM field as well as in the workforce itself will foster innovation and ensure that the STEM field will continue to grow and prosper.

If STEM has been around for so long, then why add to it? According to US News and World Report, students today are twice as likely to study STEM subjects as compared to their parents. Additionally, Pew Research found that employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, which outpaces overall U.S. job growth. In a world increasingly turning to technology, the STEM field is more crucial than ever, and adding arts to the acronym will create a more well-rounded growing workforce. In 2017, one study found that “Between 1980 and 2012, jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force. Employment and wage growth were particularly strong for jobs requiring high levels of both math skill and social skills.” The arts can assist students in gaining the kind of creativity, resourcefulness, communication, and performance skills that will benefit them not only with their academic careers but also with job opportunities.

One of the first proponents for the inclusion of arts in STEM was Georgette Yakman. In 2008, she developed a framework incorporating the arts into the traditional STEM areas. Yakman has defined the movement as “Science and Technology, interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in elements of Mathematics.” This marrying of concepts is a two-way street. In many ways, you can’t have STEM without art, and you can’t have art without STEM. Another one of the first advocates for the STEAM movement, John Maeda, stated in a 2013 op-ed for Seattle Times, “There is great power in these fields taken separately, and even more when they are put together.” The University of Delaware conducted a project in 2013 in which they developed a device that individuals may safely wear for chest compression simulations during cardiopulmonary training, thereby replacing mannequins. Art students contributed by making the device look more lifelike, and theater students acted as patients to understand how it can function more realistically. This integration of fields highlights the benefit of having the arts in STEM. Most proponents of the STEAM movement argue that design thinking and creativity foster innovation.

However, not everyone agrees that STEAM should be the successor to STEM. STEM supporters argue that there needs to be a separation between arts and STEM to prevent taking away from the focus on STEM. While STEAM supporters argue that the STEM movement has marginalized arts programs and funding in schools. The STEAM opponents’ argument is fueled by fear of the nation falling behind in the STEM fields in the United States. In 2020, the National Science Foundation published its report on Science and Engineering Indicators. The report found that the United States is falling behind compared to other countries from the perspective of degree production, investments in research and development, and scientific articles and patents. As a nation, this could indicate that we may not have enough qualified individuals and core competencies to combat climate change, fight contagious viruses, or compete in the expanding market for innovative energy systems. With these ever-pressing issues it is increasingly more apparent that we need as many perspectives and numbers as possible. This also highlights why diversity in STEAM is crucial. This concept is an ongoing debate, with advocates on both sides contending whether the arts are important to the STEM field. To understand this argument, we must first understand what art represents in STEAM.

According to Yakman’s framework, arts in STEAM fields represent liberal arts, language arts, social studies, physical arts, fine arts, and music. On its own, STEM explicitly focuses on scientific concepts. STEAM, on the other hand, focuses on these same concepts but does so through problem-based learning methods used in the creative process. As technology is driving innovation in STEM industries and automation is becoming more and more prevalent, soft skills such as teamwork, cooperation, creativity, and adaptation to change are skills that a computer cannot replicate. The arts are a great learning tool to add to STEM. This is important to note because, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, rapid technological changes continually create demand for workers within the STEM fields with these social skills. STEM is a dynamic set of fields, so it is essential for students to gain subject-matter knowledge and develop the flexibility and well-roundedness needed to adapt to these changes as they occur. These changes create the need for the inclusion of arts in STEM.

Including arts in STEM begins at the education level. STEAM education is about applying creative thinking to STEM. Creative art skills such as design, writing, and history help STEM employees solve problems in more innovative ways, according to The Conversation. Integrating arts in STEM looks like a curriculum that incorporates the study of humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, design, media, visual arts, and so much more. In a STEAM curriculum, students will use hard and soft skills to solve problems, while in STEM, the focus is explicitly on hard STEM skills. Obtaining these soft skills will make somebody more marketable in the ever-changing workforce. According to Dr. Jerome Kagan, a research professor at Harvard University, the arts contribute incredibly well to learning because they regularly combine the three major tools that the mind uses to acquire, store, and communicate knowledge: motor skills, perceptual representation, and language.

In STEM fields, art fits naturally into this arena. The connection to art is easily spotted in areas such as architecture, app and product design, graphic design, urban planning, and XR. Arts in STEAM was broken down into five subcategories by Yakman: fine arts, language arts, manual arts, physical arts, and liberal arts. This allows us to better understand how the arts might fit into other STEM fields that aren’t traditionally known for including art skills. One example of how manual arts crosses over with engineering is that manual arts are all about manipulating objects. Read more on the subcategories here.

According to Ali Gordon, an associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, “Programmers and engineers are increasingly teamed up with artists to co-develop software, products, renderings and more,” he continues by saying, “Proficiency in the arts will be particularly important to engineers and computer scientists in emerging industries, such as themed experiences, gaming, and simulation and training.” One interesting example is Leah Heiss, an artist and designer who worked with nanotechnologists in biomedical industries to create jewelry to assist diabetic patients in administering insulin. Job fields from software engineers and aerospace technicians to biotechnical engineers require some level of creativity to push innovation forward.

Diversity is another virtually unaddressed issue in STEM. The National Science Foundation compiles detailed statistics about women, underrepresented minorities and the prevalence of various disabilities among researchers and STEM students in the U.S. However, it does not ask about LGBTQ+ identification. The LGBTQ+ community has been overlooked in STEM research. As shown throughout this blog the inclusion of arts in STEM fosters innovation, creativity, and critical thinking. Ensuring a diverse STEM workforce will bring different perspectives to the table and which will help bring forth creative solutions and hypotheses. A more diverse team is more likely to outperform a more homogenous team holding that the members have equal ability, according to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.The LGBTQ+ community is the invisible minority in STEM and addressing this underrepresentation is critical. We developed the PATHS program for this reason. It's time to take action because these issues for our community are especially relevant in today’s world. PATHS is a program that uses storytelling by current LGBTQ+ STEAM workers to inspire and motivate LGBTQ+ youth and young adults interested in careers in STEAM. By giving LGBTQ+ STEAM professionals a platform to tell their stories, young people will be able to identify with other LGBTQ+ people who inspire them, connect with them and their stories, and maybe be empowered to pursue a career in STEAM.

“I encourage anybody within the art community to take up STEAM professions because they go hand in hand,” said Chintan Patel in a recent PATHS interview. From listening to firsthand experience to scientific facts, it is critical to understand the role of art and design in innovation and how art is intrinsically found in STEM. Through the arts, STEAM aims to inspire curiosity and creativity in ways that naturally align with STEM education. STEAM education is the way of the future, as art and STEM enlighten and connect one another. Steve Jobs said best, “Technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

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