Adding the Arts: STEM Evolves Into STEAM

16 February 2017

In the past few years, students, teachers, administrators and politicians have begun to recognize the benefits of STEM educationscience, technology, engineering and math—in helping us to face the challenges of the 21st century. For some, however, STEM education seems stark, colorless, even sterile. Applying STEM to a particular problem often seems like simply navigating a path that someone else already discovered. Although most scientific advances begin from principles and extrapolations based on what we already know, does pushing them forward into the mainstream depend only on logical analysis?

Although some people consider reaching beyond that core as preposterous—or at least unnecessary—some proponents such as the Rhode Island School of Design have added a fifth element to scientific reasoning—the arts. STEAM, rather than STEM. The arts introduce a dimension that STEM disciplines don’t handle very well—nonlinearity. Arts add curves to engineering’s straight lines and sharp edges. They add creativity and allow skipping steps before you reach a conclusion. At the same time, taking this less obvious path does not relieve you of the responsibility to double- and triple-check that your reasoning from the initial leap survives rigorous analysis and that you reached a valid conclusion.

Speculating on science that no one else has ever conceived of before takes more than scientific knowledge. It takes imagination. A scientist may begin with a serendipitous insight or an intuitive leap that most people would find less than obvious. Such leaps do not depend solely on logic and STEM disciplines. Aside from revealing new ways to perform mathematical analyses to further an investigation, creativity has generally remained firmly in the background. Yet many so-called rigorous problem-solving techniques would fail to yield optimum solutions without flavoring them with artistic points of view.

Einstein, for example, recognized the basic principles of relativity by listening to the sound of a train going past him as he stood on the platform. As a train approaches, the sound’s frequency rises (“squeezing sound waves together”). Once it passes, the frequency drops as the waves stretch out, a phenomenon known as the Doppler Effect. Einstein recognized that the same principle applies to light. He then set out to develop the mathematics to prove that the universe actually behaves that way. Similarly, his perceived weight change in an elevator convinced him that acceleration and gravity are in fact two manifestations of the same principle.

As a train approaches, the sound’s frequency rises. Once it passes, the frequency drops as the waves stretch out. As a train approaches, the sound’s frequency rises. Once it passes, the frequency drops as the waves stretch out.

One particular element of STEM offers a direct connection with the arts. Many studies have verified a high correlation between talent in music and talent in mathematics. That conclusion should not seem surprising, given the strict mathematical relationships inherent in music. Take any note up an octave and you have exactly doubled its frequency. The music that most humans find pleasing falls into a small group of mathematical functions. Musicians don’t consciously embrace the functions and listeners don’t recognize them, but if a performer deviates from them, the audience will notice.

The arts allow people to consciously or subconsciously codify a great many objective criteria into a subjectively satisfying whole—a painting, or a piece of music, or a revolutionary architectural design. Even creating a sophisticated piece of software benefits from artistic insight. To deny that connection limits STEM subjects to their narrowest and most rigid manifestation. Archimedes would not have run naked through the streets of Athens shouting, “Eureka” if he had simply reasoned out a method for determining if the king’s crown was made of pure gold by methodical iteration. The aggregation of thoughts related to the problem had coalesced into a moment of pure inspiration.

Incorporating artistic thinking into the rigors of scientific investigation produces innovations that circumvent the linear constraints of methodical reasoning. In the words of one astrophysicist, “Sometimes our mathematical models predict results that we know are impossible. Then we find them.”


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