Innovation is touted as the panacea to volatile economic environments and an assurance of a prosperous future. So much so that politicians have latched on to better science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in schools, positioning it as a solution to all our future economic ailments.
For a long time, it’s mostly been parents on the receiving end of messages about the importance of STEM education, instructed to raise mini-coders and buy toys that replicate engineering problems. But that’s no longer the case. Programs such as Code Academy, Galvanize, and Code School are attracting adults—paying thousands of dollars—hoping to retrain as developers. President Obama even pledged $4 billion to fund computer science education and initiated national STEM events, such as Hour of Code as part of his Educate to Innovate program.
It’s not only America that believes STEM education is important. Investing in the development of specialized, technical skills has spread across the globe. On the plus side, this could fast-track economic development and raise the bar of innovation to exciting new levels. But it could also catalyze the outsourcing of more jobs overseas where the same quality of talent can be had for a fraction of the U.S. price.
So is STEM enough to ensure a prosperous future?
Not by itself. STEM is important—critical even—but technical and mathematical skills need to be augmented by creatively applying tools and knowledge to make new things and solve problems.
If half of innovation can be attributed to STEM-based skills, the other half belongs to creativity and critical thinking. New solutions, innovative products, and thinking outside of the box all require some right-brain competence. Historically, it has been the spark of creativity and inspiration, combined with strong STEM skills that have lead to major breakthroughs.
Integrating design skills, creative thought, and critical approaches with STEM education is known as STEAM (with the A representing art, design, and creativity) and I believe this approach to be more promising. The combination of creative AND technical ability is America’s secret sauce to continued prosperity. STEM is ok, but STEAM? That is a real engine of future economic development.
STEM is important—critical even—but technical and mathematical skills need to be augmented with the creative application of tools and knowledge in order to make new things and solve problems.
The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) notes on its website, STEM to STEAM, that, “Art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.” While RISD may be biased on this, they are not the only ones talking about the importance of layering creative application know-how on top of science, technology, engineering, and math education.
At its recent meeting, the World Economic Forum released a study showing which skills it thought would be most valuable in 2020 in comparison to 2015. While most of the skills nudged up or down only a few places, “creativity” shot up from the tenth most valuable skill in 2015 to the third just five years later.
Author Daniel Pink expands on the role of creativity in education in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Using a simplified schematic of the brain, he argues that for a successful economic future, the left-sided, STEM brain is foundational but not enough. It will be the right-side, also known as the creative side of the brain, that will set America apart.
In a Mathematician’s Lament, author Paul Lockhart takes a contrarian stance that I find very interesting. He doesn’t argue about the left versus right side segmentation, but instead questions why mathematics is classified as a hard science when in reality, he believes it to be one of the purest forms of art. Sure, winners of the Fields medal, one of the highest honors in math, have great core mathematics skills, but what really makes them accomplished is innovation, or tackling a problem differently—it’s the creative application of knowledge that leads to the breakthroughs.
Acknowledging that abilities and interests vary from person to person, a sensible education path would be one that fosters technical skills, but not at the sacrifice of individual creativity.
Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED talk, Do schools kill creativity? (the most viewed talk ever) discusses how more needs to be done in the educational system to inspire and nurture creativity in our children, not snuff it out. Acknowledging that abilities and interests vary from person to person, a sensible education path, he proposes, would be one that fosters technical skills, but not at the sacrifice of individual creativity.
STEAM education needs to be thought of as a pyramid, almost like the A itself. If STEM lies at the foundation—which in the future will be as commonplace as reading and writing—then the differentiator is the A.
As usual, Google is ahead of the curve on this, referring to its employees as “smart creatives” and acknowledging it’s not only the technical skills that make them valuable but also the intangible creative skills.
For me, STEAM education shares many attributes with the design thinking approach, commonly discussed at Stanford’s d.school or the MIT Media Lab and summed up perfectly here:
“STEAM represents a paradigm shift from traditional education philosophy, based on standardized test scores to a modern ideal which focuses on valuing the learning process as much as the results. In essence, we dare our students to be wrong, to try multiple ideas, listen to alternative opinions and create a knowledge base that is applicable to real life as opposed to simply an exam.” - Deron Cameron, Former UPES Principal, the U.S.'s 1st STEAM-certified School and current TCSS Curriculum Coordinator.
This could just as easily be a quote from innovation consulting firm IDEO.
STEM needs to be taught with an emphasis on the technical elements but supplemented with the development of creative and critical thought. Building empathy skills in a collaborative environment can get you a long way to a competitive, and productive, balanced STEAM workforce.
My daughter is three years old, and I’m not willing to wait until she attends Stanford or MIT for STEAM education. I believe this should be part of her learning process from Pre-K and critically before that, at home.
Importantly, STEAM isn’t just about how we modernize our school system but also has ramifications for the workplace. As managers it’s important to consider, who would you rather hire: a smart creative or a STEM robot? I know my preference at Pellucid Analytics.
I’m not alone in questioning the dominance of STEM and would love your thoughts on this. How is it factoring into your hiring practices? For education, should we go even further than inserting an A into the model? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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