We recently had the pleasure of collaborating in Richard Saul Wurman's new improvisational conference WWW, which came to life for the first, and perhaps only, time in September. One of many powerful moments of conversation was when Will.i.am took the stage to talk about the importance of getting children involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math -- the STEM subjects. The lead singer of the Black Eyed Peas has become an impassioned spokesperson for how STEM will power the economy and lift neighborhoods from poverty, and for how we need to do more to get kids to pursue careers in the STEM fields.
Talking to each other after his talk, we both realized it's no coincidence that someone like Will.i.am -- an artist himself -- makes the case for STEM the best. As the CEO of a global transmedia company, and president of the preeminent school of art and design, we both witness the amazing thinking and making that creative people -- artists and designers -- engage in every day. It's why, like Will.i.am himself has recently started to champion, we need to include Art and design when we talk about how STEM powers innovation. We need to add Art to turn STEM to STEAM.
Our conversation together reinforced three important points about why STEAM, not STEM, is so critical:
Artists and designers bring STEM to life:
As we all know, STEM is so important -- but on its own, sadly it's not working. Despite all of the resources being invested in it, the word is exactly what's wrong with the concept. It doesn't inspire, energize or engage the youth whom it is ultimately intended to benefit; hence our nation is falling desperately behind.
Just looking around the room at WWW, when an artist like Yo Yo Ma or Will.i.am speaks or performs, you instantly recognize the attention the Arts commands. There's a level of storytelling and pure emotion that only they can convey that makes people sit up and take note. It's artists and designers who tell stories to move, to inspire, to entertain, to persuade. This same creative thinking that will be required to solve the gnarly challenges the 21st century presents to us.
As an example, there was a recent campaign by the Lumina Foundation called KnowHow2Go, aimed at getting high school kids prepared for college. It reminds them of the required courses they will need to take to be considered for admission -- Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Foreign Languages. Lumina is right: these are the subjects many colleges value. But what about the important work of getting the students tuned in to this message? That was done with a compelling campaign developed by the same kinds of artists and designers who come to RISD and end up working for firms like @radical.media.
Creativity will always be America's secret sauce:
What is missing from traditional STEM approaches is what has always been the "secret sauce" to American progress -- creativity. When we think about the success of the American auto industry in its heyday, or Apple's present success, it's because both pioneered taking a product that was purely functional and made it desirable. Both took a piece of technology and provided artistry.
We both see examples every day -- of students experimenting with a new material to get the desired shape, of sound editors staying up to all hours mixing to get the desired impact, of web designers testing versions to get the most intuitive experience. The artists' and designers' passionate pursuit to express themselves -- to make an impact -- gives the technology in their hands purpose and makes innovation come alive.
STEAM is gaining traction
At RISD we have been championing STEAM for a while and have truly seen a national movement starting to take shape. In addition to Will.i.am, this year Sesame Street is being brought to viewers by the letters S - T - E - A - M . Only a year ago, Elmo was interviewed on CNN about the importance of S -T - E -M.
In Rhode Island, Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) introduced House Resolution 319, which "Expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that adding art and design into federal programs that target Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, encourages innovation and economic growth in the United States." Government agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts are working together and are both behind STEAM as well.