Everyone knows what STEM stands for: science, technology, engineering and maths. Of course, these skills are vital. But our future also demands people who can be creative across these disciplines, too.
Welcome to a STEAM-powered world: an education framework using science and technology, interpreted through engineering and – crucially – the arts, all based in mathematical elements.
Where STEAM began
US technology teacher Georgette Yakman first came up with the idea of STEAM when she was looking for a way to teach people. A way that was more representative of how they learned naturally.
“When I first came into education, things didn’t make a lot of sense to me. If you teach all these things in relation to each other, it makes more sense and it’s more ingrained,” she told the Big Ideas Fest.
She was raised by her immigrant grandparents: her grandfather was an electrical engineer who worked on the electrical system that went into the first module that landed on the moon. Her grandmother was a Puerto Rican debutante who gave up that lifestyle to live on their 200-acre farm. “I got his strict engineering mindset and I got her loose, creative, humanistic mindset,” she said.
Both her mother and her brother are on the autistic spectrum. “I grew up with this mindset that there are so many different ways to learn from people and teach people.”
STEAM and Sesame Street
It was Albert Einstein who pointed out that ‘the greatest scientists are artists as well.’ That’s the attitude that drives STEAM. It’s all about freeing subjects from their silos and allowing students to bring ideas together.
So this might include using two or more subjects in one project – for example, drawing on maths skills and artistic skills to design a house. Or using coding and design skills to create a video game.
Children’s programme Sesame Street, for example, has embraced STEAM. It created ‘Elmo the Musical’, an interactive adventure created by Elmo and the child at home, where Elmo needs to use a variety of skills – both imagination and maths-based – to solve problems.
(Of course, Sesame Street has known for years that kids learn in all sorts of ways. “Incorporating the arts into our STEM curriculum was an exciting and natural addition, as Sesame Street has always used music, visual and performing arts as tools to educate and entertain children,” says Dr Rosemarie Truglio, SVP of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop.)
Full STEAM ahead
So why is it so important to be a STEAM thinker? That’s where the jobs are going to be.
Back in the 1950s, when you talked about a ‘computer’, you’d be referring to a human being – someone whose job it was to do maths. (For a great example of their incredible contribution, check out the film Hidden Figures, the story of the African American women ‘computers’ who helped make the moon landings possible).
These days, of course, human computers are long gone. The computer on our desk – or in our pocket – does that kind of thinking for us. Now, we need people who can do the things computers can’t. And that means stuff like creative problem solving, making connections between subjects, working across disciplines and coming up with leftfield solutions. All these skills are central to the STEAM agenda.
STEAM is good for business
The UK’s creative industries are worth an incredible £84bn a year – and experts realise that it’s vital to bring STEAM on to the agenda if that success is to continue.
In October 2017, the Cultural Learning Alliance and Nesta published a briefing paper called ‘Why STEM can only take us so far.’ It pointed out that employers value “21st-century skills – a mix of cognitive and personal skills, like creativity and collaboration – as well as content knowledge.” And it brought in research showing that firms that combine arts and STEM skills are more likely to bring radical innovations to market.
“The case for STEAM has been made,” says Ian Livingstone CBE, one of the founding fathers of the UK games industry and a non-executive director of Creative Industries Federation. “We now need a cross-disciplinary STEAM approach embedded in our schools to provide children with the knowledge, essential skills and attributes required to play an active and successful role in our highly competitive, fast-changing digital world.”