STEM vs. STEAM? Preparing Students in the Tech Revolution.

One of the ongoing messages of this blog is the importance of Higher Education in forming the underlying cultural principles of our society. As we explore elements of change and challenge, we see the importance of considered analysis and discussion, a community based problem solving exercise and methods of compromise. In a recent post I discussed the role of Liberal Arts and the Humanities in our educational system and the many broad based skills and learning it contributes to society. In that post I mentioned my daughter, an Urban Designer in Tampa as an example of the importance of liberal arts skills along side technical ones. She recently attended a community event that dealt with the very same issues, and she has agreed to share her thoughts. She is a skillful blogger herself, so I agreed to post an article on her blog. If you are interested, take the opportunity to visit it here!

I was introduced to the STEM vs. STEAM debate this week through an exciting community forum that takes place bi-monthly in Tampa. This month’s “Not Your Average Speakers Series,” hosted by 83 Degrees Media, an online magazine that promotes the economic development of the Tampa metro area, included five local panelests involved in education, technology and the arts locally. With an engaged audience of teachers, business people, and others passionate about education, the discussion (and debate at times) was a thrilling introduction to the challenge of preparing students for the demands of the workplace today.

STEM stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics ” If you google STEM, you will see many groups at the national, state, and local level that are dedicated to closing the skills gap in the job market. Over the past decade, STEM jobs have tripled over the number of non STEM jobs. This movement was established and responded quickly with grants, technical assistance, and lobbying legislation to put an emphasis on transforming traditional education.

The America COMPETES Act recognizes the likelihood of the United States’ future inability to compete with foreign countries in STEM. It authorizes funding for NASA, NOAA, National Institute for Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, as well as education grants, fellowships, and training. US companies lobby Congress to allow more foreigners with advanced STEM degrees to have permanent resident status. Even departments like Homeland Security hold their own degree programs in STEM that allow people to remain the country for extended periods because their skills are so in demand.

One of the panelists, Terry Boehm, president of the Pinellas Education Foundation, is a strong proponent of STEM education and believes that tradition education is failing to engage students anymore, especially males. Additionally, he recognized that only 50% of students graduating from college work in a job where their degree in relevant. He believes we are missing our mark in how we teach our children and how we prepare them for the workforce.

There is no debate that America is not preparing their students enough for the types of expertise that are required as we move through our technology revolution – the debate lies in HOW we prepare our students and WHY.

Enter STEAM. STEAM stands for “science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.” The objectives of the movement, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) is to exemplify how art and design education teaches the “flexible thinking, risk-taking and creative problem solving needed to solve today’s most complex and pressing challenges – from healthcare to urban revitalization to global warming.” Transforming research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM, encouraging integration of art and design in K–20 education, and influencing employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation are immediate objectives of the movement. Included by many STEAM groups is philosophy, history, reading, writing and humanities and they can be incorporated with the arts to increase innovation through education.

Another panelist, Larry Thompson, the president of the Ringling College of Art and Design, is a strong proponent of STEAM stating that “in order to reclaim America’s creativity differentiator, we must be able to provide businesses with a workforce of imaginative employees who will pave the way to a new future in American business.” He believes, as do many, that studying arts teaches critical thinking, creativity, and a deeper understanding of the unquantifiable, all of which are a necessity in the global marketplace. While most would think that a college of art and design would focus on painting, sculpture, and drawing, they would see from the articles in Ringling’s most recent magazine that the school is engaged in preparing their students for the  market place. Fuel for Our Economic Future: Art, Design, and Creativity, Ringling College: Powering the Creative Economy, Smart Business: Think Like and Artist and Give Them What They Are Missing, Fostering Creativity and Innovation with Corporate Structures are all titles of articles written by Ringing faculty and alumni.This is clearly not your traditional arts institution.

Additionally, Wit Ostrenko, the president of the Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI) in Tampa emphasizes that creativity is at the heart of the sciences. Walk into the MOSI, and it appears to be like any science center for children, in fact it’s the 8th largest in the country. But the most popular part of the whole complex is the “Idea Zone: Dream It, Make It, Do It,” which will make up half the museum after future expansion. While the lab is based on STEM concepts, Mr. Ostrenko stresses that without creativity, there would be no big ideas.

During the conversation between panelists and audience members, we heard a wide variety of views on the issue through personal anecdotes, based on different belief systems. However, what surprised me most was a sentiment shared by the CEO of a website development company as well as Larry Langebrake, Director of SRI International’s regional marine biology laboratory in St. Petersburg. The CEO of the website development company said that they usually hire people with education in the arts instead of technology because computer science degree holders don’t know how to communicate their ideas or think critically about their work. Mr. Langebrake said that when he is interviewing someone he doesn’t even look at their technical experience or education, he focuses on the candidates ability to communicate their value – and therefore the potential value they will contribute to his company. Both of these high tech companies rely on people with a foundation in liberal arts education.

My journey through education has been discussed previously on this blog in a related post, but let me recap here. I am 29 years old, but it’s only in the last few years that I really hit my stride and found out how to fully incorporate my passions into my career. I am an urban designer and planner who works primarily for a transportation planning and engineering firm in Tampa. I am also a trained architect. All of these disciplines, urban design, urban planning, and especially architecture, require a deep understanding of math and technology. If it weren’t for an early exposure to the arts, however, I never would be in the career I am in today – retrofitting our cities, roads, and infrastructure to accomodate our transforming communities and industries. When given the choice between a technical professional BARCH degree in architecture, or a BA in Architecture, which would allow me to have a stronger foundation in the liberal arts, including minors in psychology and religious studies, I chose the latter. Now, I am a confident professional woman who has beat out the competition because I could write and express my value to my employeer, and felt comfortable doing so.

My sentiment, shared by Larry Thompson, Wit Ostrenko, and Larry Langebrake, was prevalent among members of the audience. However, three more came to the surface regarding the education system. First was testing. A decade long policy change in the federal education system means that a student in public school endures 27 days of testing in a 180 day school year, while a student in private school endures 3. In addition to those 27 days, there are many more that are geared towards preparing for the tests. Through school rankings and funding, current education policy devalues the profession of a teacher and their ability to truly teach.

Additionally, the issue of “siloing” our children at a young age was raised continuously throughout the evening. Public schools that emphasize science, technology, and math for children as young as elementary age are becoming more prevalent as the push for STEM education continues. The fear is that at the youngest age, students are being deprived of a strong liberal arts foundation that could not only narrow their exposure to exploring their natural skill set, but hinder their ability to learn basic communication skills.

Finally, the rising cost of education paired with the competitive job market as a deterrent for college students choosing their major was a topic of conversation. The room fell silent when a young woman explained that she had always wanted to be a film director and had  planned to go to film school. With people in her life telling her over and over again that she would never have a lucrative career and live as a starving artist, she instead enrolled in law school. The recession hit with lawyers suffering greatly. Now she is unemployed with $2o0,000 in debt that she can’t pay – and she instead is starving herself of what she considers her true passion in life.

Subsequently, the room grew tense when an audience member stated that there wasn’t one person in grad school who hadn’t chosen their masters program based on how much money they would make when they graduated. He believed that for parents to tell their children to “follow their dreams,” despite all else was wrong and unrealistic. Larry Thompson, strongly objected, as did I. I had the great fortune of having parents that told me that I could be the richest person in the world, but if when I went to work every day I didn’t feel as though I was doing what I loved or my work wasn’t an extension of myself that I would indeed have a life of unhappiness. I did follow my dreams, and while the job market has been challenging at times, I have always found a deep satisfaction in knowing that my talents were meeting the demands of the world – and that is something that is priceless.

In fact, the STEM vs. STEAM debate is not as simple as solving the equation of education responding to the job market. It’s a passionate and emotional debate about our children being given the opportunity to fully explore their own identity, talents, and ability to change the world, through learning in the classroom. By taking away that class in creative writing from the future Shakespeare for more time in the lab, or depriving the future Yo-Yo Ma from that cello lesson for math club, we could in fact be depriving our future economy of the talent that it needs to survive.

The STEM vs. STEAM debate will live on. There is no doubt that our education system is not doing the trick. It must be changed to let teachers teach and children to learn, but I would argue there is no reason to hastily dismember the broad and strong education foundation that has served us well until now without being sure of the impact that it will have on our future generation, economy, and ability to compete in the global market.

Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver & Associates. She is also the author of At the Helm of the Public Realm, a blog about urban design, urban planning, and the built environment.