STEAM > STEM

We’re delighted to host this guest post from Matthew Smith (AKA @Smiffy), a technologist based in South Australia. The post was prompted by a Twitter discussion with a curator a few weeks ago, which persuaded him that despite seeming to not work in the humanities he should definitely sign up as curator (we agree!). He’ll be taking over the account in the summer but in the meantime here are his thoughts about what’s missing from the STEM collaboration.

STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. In an academic context, this term equates to taking certain, overlapping, areas of human knowledge, and lumping them together in one single mass – but at the exclusion of other disciplines that may also overlap, in a fairly significant way. Whilst the component disciplines of STEM do have fairly obvious overlaps, I feel that, from the perspective of a non-academic, trying to take an objective view, excluding other overlapping disciplines is not at Good Thing.

In this, I have found I am not alone; what I write here is not a random idea, but the conclusion of a number of discussions on both the @WetheHumanities and the @realscientists rotation/curation Twitter accounts. (Thanks to @DrSMMorgan for the early discussions that got the ball rolling here.)

So what’s missing from STEM, that makes me so uncomfortable? The answer is the letter A – representing Arts. I don’t know who came up with the term first (wish I could say that it was me!) but STEM plus Arts becomes STEAM.

One example of where STEM really needs to be STEAM (and would have to assume it actually is, in practice,) is architecture. I’m not quite sure how much S(cience) you need to make a building stay up, but there’s physics underpinning the essential E(ngineering) which also requires M(athematics.) But nobody wants ugly buildings; do I see aesthetics anywhere in STEM? No. That’s where we need A(rts.) I actually have an enormous respect for architects (the good ones, at least) – being able to engineer well with artistic vision is no mean feat.

Another example is this web thingy that we all consume day in, day out. Originating at @CERN, one of the most awesome S facilities in the world (in my opinion!) it takes T, E, and M to make it happen, and to fully understand it. But our interactions require design. Designing for the web requires an insight into the T(echnology) but, as with architecture, requires A(rts) to make it acceptable and not cause offence. (Hey, I’m not saying it’s always done well.)

Recording engineers, car designers, all those clever people at Apple giving us shiny new technology – the list goes on; whilst some of these examples may involve teams of STEM plus Arts people, for a team to be truly effective, members need to have at least some insight into each others specialities.

So, where am I leading with all this? I feel that the artificial segregation of areas of knowledge is unwise, and possibly harmful (teaching people, then sending them out into the world unprepared for important bits of it.) If we can’t get institutions to change, and be more inclusive in their disciplines, we can at least make those studying there aware of the fact that they may need to be reading outside of the scope of their own courses – and we can do that by keeping the STEAM > STEM conversation going.

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