STEM + A ≠ STEAM
Each day the need for continuous engagement in higher learning is evident. All sectors of society depend on the advanced new knowledge and full development of all human talent. To that end, every citizen’s capacity to expand and acquire increased global learning for the express purpose of addressing the world’s urgent challenges and problems—economic, ethical, political, intercultural, and environmental—becomes more and more paramount. Recently, there has been enormous emphasis placed on the need for greater exploration in areas such as the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). While the need for advanced new knowledge in the STEM fields is unquestionable, the development of all human talent requires equal emphasis in the arts and humanities. Nevertheless, the key is not found in a silo approach but in an integrative or collaborative model.
Although there are many institutions of higher education seeking to create opportunities for interdisciplinary research that includes arts and design integration, there are findings that reveal inequities and imbalances within these collaborations between the STEM areas and the arts. These inequities reduce the standings of the arts and the artists. Consequently, the efforts to institute a collaborative environment in the sciences, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) must recognize systemic differences between research processes and norms in the hard sciences and the arts.
For example, artists are not perceived as equal partners in many collaborative investigations. The consequence is the artists often feel that their value as contributors is noted for visual imagery of data rather than as a vital part of the research effort. This, needless to say, is compounded by the tendency to invite the artists to participate late into the process, reinforcing the notion that the invitation was an afterthought or an embellishment. Furthermore, artists hold a fundamental belief in producing art for art’s sake. This viewpoint affects their willingness to engage their talents and skills to produce work serving a purpose that seems to supersede its own aesthetic value. These factors cannot be ignored if the primary goal is to generate new knowledge and understanding in an interdisciplinary context.
The creative research process for artists includes exploring new stimuli and fresh ideas while expanding technical skills to enhance the impact of the art itself. As in the scientific research, contemporary art forms, both fine and performing arts, require a collective pursuit of a new expression (knowledge) of art. Most often this process only begins when all principal contributors are present at the inception of the work. Interdisciplinary research between the arts and sciences engenders expanded practices in both sectors through the influences of the interactions realized as a part of the project. As in the Renaissance, the 21st century global community provides opportunities for the artist to inform the scientist and vice-versa. The integration of the arts as a part of the STEM research enterprise, thus creating STEAM—not STEM plus A—has the potential to impact both the arts and science during the process. As long as the commitment to STEAM is from the beginning, the arts processes and scientific processes have much more in common than is often understood or appreciated.