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Putting the Art into STEM Education

STEAM-designNeedless to say, Leonardo da Vinci was a genius. Not only was he a brilliant and talented artist and philosopher, but he also designed and built many spectacular inventions as well. It was a sign of the times that brilliant thinkers should not only have an artistic eye, but also have the know-how to build almost anything they could lay their hands on.

Sadly, today’s engineering majors have little time for artistic pursuits. “Learning how to think like an engineer is very powerful,” says Domenico Grasso, provost at the University of Delaware. “But other disciplines have very powerful approaches as well.”

This idea of learning engineering and manufacturing skills from other areas of study, outside of math and computer science, is part of a growing movement to improve the traditional STEM curriculum. It’s called STEAM education and it’s putting the art back into innovation!

It’s actually quite simple to understand: “Engineers focus on how it works,” says Jenni Buckley, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Delaware University. “Artists focus on the user experience.” For example, the Delaware engineering department created a device humans can safely wear for chest compression practice during CPR training for their senior project last year. According to the New York Times, the team brought in art students to make the devices look more lifelike and had theater students’ act as patients to make the experience more realistic.

The Rhode Island School of Design also believes in the importance of STEAM education. They are leading a national initiative to incorporate art and design into the STEM curriculum to teach kids risk-taking and creative problem-solving skills necessary to tackle problems like climate change or health care.

Take this independent project from R.I.S.D. students and their neighbors at Brown University. The project combined engineering majors from Brown and architecture and design students from R.I.S.D. to build an 800-square-foot, textile-draped, Flintstones-meets-Jetsons solar house. The project is called Techstyle Haus and was one of two American entries into the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe in Versailles, France.

“It’s been really amazing to work with R.I.S.D. students because of how focused they are on design,” says Isby Lubin, a Brown engineering major. “We were able to meet in the middle because we’re all trained in a really strong foundation. It’s just in different things.”

John Maeda, who was president of R.I.S.D. from 2008 to 2013, champions the move from STEM into STEAM. In a blog post from Scientific American last year, Maeda wrote this about the synergy of art and science: “Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us. ‘What is true?’ ‘Why does it matter?’ ‘How can we move society forward?’ Both search deeply, and often wanderingly, for these answers.”

Even the most brilliant minds struggle with those questions. Leonardo da Vinci himself probably went gray in the hair searching for those answers. But he had the mechanical skills and the artistic vision to meet those challenges. We believe that it is time that STEM students also had his vision when developing their skills in the classroom. Besides, a little artistic flair can’t hurt, right?

photo credit: New York Times

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