From STEM to STEAM Education

I’m sure readers of this magazine have noticed the increased emphasis in the U.S. recently on promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. That’s a good thing, but it’s not enough. To improve the odds of achieving the goals that STEM promoters have—including a better-trained workforce and economic leadership—we should be adding an “A” for “arts” to that acronym. Encouraging education in both the liberal arts and fine arts, even for those pursuing STEM careers, would really put some STEAM into the workforce and economy.

I’m not just saying that because “STEAM” is a clever acronym for a power generation publication.

It’s true that, on average, someone with a STEM degree is projected to earn more over a lifetime than someone with a degree in the liberal or fine arts—though I know one well-paid former utility executive with a PhD in philosophy. However, someone with a background in both STEM and the arts is more likely to leverage that technical degree into maximum career success, for a couple of reasons.

People who have been trained in just one way of thinking about problems are less likely to come up with effective solutions—especially when contexts or resources change—than someone who has been trained to think about situations from multiple angles. Additionally, brilliant scientists and engineers who cannot communicate—in speech and in writing, to colleagues, staff, and the public—run the risk of being less effective in advancing their ideas than mediocre peers who have mastered the art of shaping and delivering an argument. That’s why books such as Learning to Communicate in Science and Engineering (MIT Press ebook) have been written.

And don’t ignore the edge that the fine arts can provide. Playing a musical instrument, for example, enhances hand/eye coordination and can help train the brain to pay attention to multiple “data feeds” at virtually the same time. Making music—not just listening to it—can enhance one’s ability to learn everything from math to languages and can strengthen organizational and problem-solving skills, because making music integrates mathematical and linguistic (left hemisphere) with creative (right hemisphere) brain functions.

For an engaging scientific and artistic explanation of this, watch the TED talk “How playing an instrument benefits your brain”, which suggests that the connections made in musicians’ minds may help them “to solve problems more effectively and creatively in both academic and social settings.” (Incidentally, while working on this issue, I learned that, although her father was a math teacher and she built a career in finance, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good—who has had more than her share of problems to solve since taking the top job—studied piano as a child.)

Strength Comes from Balance

When I think about the value of a STEAM background, I often recall one of my husband’s former golfing buddies during our Boston years. Shunichi, who was employed as an engineer in Japan, was in the U.S. for a year to study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), but what really impressed me was his explanation of why he chose a STEM career. Although his natural abilities and interests were in the arts and humanities, he chose something that was initially harder for him, in order to achieve better balance, he said.

We do need to encourage students to develop STEM competencies, but we also should encourage them to develop strengths in the arts so they have the optimal set of learning modes, problem-solving approaches, and communication skills to succeed in an increasingly complex world. Without a STEAM education, the workforce of the future may find itself with self-limiting skills. This goes for folks in the trades as well.

Note that I also would encourage liberal arts students to make a deeper commitment to STEM subjects, not only because technology is working its way into many fine and liberal arts but also because understanding STEM fields, and their history, is increasingly essential to understanding our world.

Reject False Limitations

Just as companies with more gender-diverse workforces and leadership enjoy stronger economic performance (see this issue’s “Women Are Essential to a Thriving Power Generation Sector”), individuals with more diverse educational backgrounds may enjoy better career success. There are exceptions, of course, but especially in our fast-changing global economy, those with multiple ways of viewing and solving problems are more likely to land on their feet when circumstances change—whether that be a result of a business downturn, a physical disability, or simply a desire to try something new.

We do not need to buy into the false choice between STEM and the arts. Surely our students are smart enough to major in engineering while playing in the marching band, or to major in English while studying biology and physics so they can craft more-accurate journalism or more-informed public policy. A little cross-pollination might even make for more-interesting and happy lives outside of work.

I’m not alone in calling for STEAM education. Among those in the STEAM movement is Dr. Loretta Jackson-Hayes, an associate professor of chemistry at Rhodes College, who wrote for the Washington Post on Feb. 18, “Our culture has drawn an artificial line between art and science, one that did not exist for innovators like Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs.”

If you have a story about the value of a STEAM education in the power industry, please share it in the online comments or via the POWER LinkedIn group discussions. ■

Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s editor.

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