STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) has been in the news for the last two years. The STEM initiative grew from concerns in the United States and elsewhere about the decline in student interest in what are perceived to be key areas of study for 21st century economies. Underlying these policy discussions are concerns about the effectiveness of K-12 and post-secondary educational institutions and their ability to meet the needs of contemporary society. Here is how the California Department of Education explains the initiative:

STEM education is a sequence of courses or program of study that prepares students, including underrepresented groups:

•       for successful employment, post-secondary education, or both that require different and more technically sophisticated skills including the application of mathematics and science skills and concepts, and

•       to be competent, capable citizens in our technology-dependent, democratic society. 

These goals have been fundamental to most forms of education and most stages of learning in western countries for over fifty years. There is nothing new here other than the acronym. It is not an accident that most schools in the K-12 and post-secondary system, have well developed science, technology and mathematics departments or faculties. These areas have always been strongly supported. In contrast, teachers and learners in the humanities and creative areas like the visual arts and music have always struggled with less dollars and even less public concern.

In response, an important and strategically well thought out campaign has been developed to shift STEM to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Mathematics).

Initially, I was a supporter of the initiative. After all, government policy in education in Western democracies purposely leaves out the creative process, art, music and the humanities in general. STEAM was developed to sensitize policymakers to the diversity and complexity of learning, and to the variety of ways in which students learn.

Stephen Beal, the President of the California College of the Arts in San Francisco summarizes the discussion in the following way:

But if you dig a little deeper you will realize that art and science are not polar opposites. That there are far more commonalities than there are differences. Art and science are, in the words of astronaut Mae Jamison, "manifestations of the same thing. They are avatars of human creativity."

Creativity. Just one thing the disciplines share. Here are some other words that resonate for both fields: research, observation, experimentation, discovery, collaboration, and innovation.

Then why does this art-science dichotomy persist? Human history shows us that artistic and cultural upheavals have always gone hand-in-hand with scientific and technological advances. (Turn STEM to STEAM: Why Science Needs the Arts Huffington Post, June 11, 2013 )

Beal is right and to varying degrees parents in particular know that their children need the diversity that cross-disciplinary approaches encourage. Intuitively all of these divisions between the sciences and the arts just don’t feel right since for the most part culture in all its manifestations and institutional forms is an integral part of the life of communities. “There are approximately 850 million visits each year to American museums, more than the attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million in 2011).” The figures for online attendance at museums are also in the hundreds of millions.

However, something about the STEM to STEAM discussion feels stale. In the first place, it is not a new debate but one that has been raging for decades. Secondly, the new technologies now transforming commerce, science and the arts are by their very nature integrated and integrative. The umbilical cord linking all of these practices and disciplines is design, which is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

In other words, our culture, economy and daily practices have moved on and are now far beyond the divisions that STEM and STEAM suggest and promote. In fact, both acronyms suggest disagreements that would have made it impossible for companies like Amazon and Apple to survive. Videogames by their very nature utilize not only the sciences but also mathematics and engineering and art. Policymakers may be about twenty years behind in this debate, but daily life in the digital and Internet age long ago surpassed the simple divisions built into these acronyms.  

Rather and in my opinion more importantly, how can educational institutions and teaching practices catch up to learners who will just as easily make a YouTube instructional video about STEM, as they will a fictional video about vampires? Or, combining the computer sciences, technological knowhow and culture produce games, hybrid experiments in virtual worlds and invent new ways of using 3D printing in manufacturing?

It is an irony that most of the technologies developed in Silicon Valley and in fact, even the term start-up, grew from ideas that sometimes intuitively and other times quite deliberately understood and anticipated cultural needs and trends. Behind the debate about STEM and STEAM, there remains a 19th century notion that what we teach needs to reflect where we think our society is going both culturally and economically. It would be better if we examined how we got to this stage and even better if we would recognize that there is no clear formula to producing the contexts within which creativity and learning experiences can flourish in any discipline.

Acronyms like STEM or STEAM suggest formulas and simple ways of arriving at mutually agreed upon destinations. Schools then become funnels for preconceived ideas and programs that supposedly will solve issues of employment, economics and citizenship. These things can happen but only if we recognize that learning is now dominated by multi-modal forms of communications and interaction. More happens informally than formally. We finally have permeable spaces and disciplines will have a much harder time hiding away from the mainstream.

Learning has always been about relationships and at present those relationships extend far beyond the halls of academe or a high school. In a sense, and from a cultural point of view, we have arrived at a point of convergence between the general culture and the culture of learning. In this new environment, we need new models and new ways of prototyping different approaches to learning. STEM to STEAM, while not unimportant is a debate from another era.


Research in the Creative Arts

Let me begin by suggesting that the term contingency may be a useful way of thinking about research in areas not traditionally thought of as research-based. It is not fair to compare research in the arts and design for example, to the social sciences although they may share more than we realize. We therefore need some new thinking on the meaning of research in the creative areas both as method and as process. This is all the more urgent because artists and designers have had a great deal of difficulty arguing their case with government, the community and with industry. And, as we have seen in Great Britain, research in the creative areas is measured in much the same way as other disciplines and often not to the benefit of creative work. In fact, debate is needed on the policy environment being created in the UK around the Creative Industries because so many of the presuppositions being put in place are being copied elsewhere in the industrial world.

Contingency speaks to activities that begin without a clear sense of their outcome. Artists have always been comfortable with this as have some writers. In the past, some designers oriented their creative process around the expectations of clients and so it appeared as if their creative process was more concrete and less contingent than artists. Now, designers have more fully recognized that they are as involved in the invention of new ideas and processes as artists and so both creative engagements share a similar sense that outcomes are a byproduct of creative engagement.

A by-product? Yes, if the outcome is largely determined by an ongoing process that may not be linear, then outcomes are by and large as accidental even when the intentions are strong. Some artists of course, play with chance and accidents all the time and this was the foundation of the work of John Cage. Others plan their works very carefully and many have those works built by apprentices to specifications they have created. But, for the most part artists and designers to varying degrees learn to combine chance, accident and purpose to produce works that reflect only a small proportion of their intentions.

Traditional research in the social sciences uses a variety of time tested methods from observation to participant observation among many approaches, to try and understand phenomena and in many cases suggest solutions to problems and challenges. The methods range from the quantitative to the qualitative and constitute a vast constellation of strategic choices with the intellectual and practical goal of deepening and enhancing our understanding both of the world we live in and ourselves. I cannot do justice to the range here, its complexity and breadth. Suffice to say, nearly anything and everything can be the object or subject of research.

My point is that the same situation exists in the arts and design. Tim Brown comments on Charles Eames and the manner in which the Eames conducted a series of important design experiments in the early 20th century. (See Brown’s wonderful book, Change by Design published by Harper Collins in 2009.) “From their legendary office at 901 Washington Boulevard in Venice, California, the Eameses and their associates conducted a series of design experiments that stretched across four decades and covered every imaginable medium: the molded plywood chairs that became synonymous with American modernism; their famous case study house No. 8 in Pacific Palisades; the museum exhibitions they built, and the educational films they produced. Not always visible in the finished projects, however, is the methodological experimentation that lay behind them.” (71)

Crucially, the finished projects of designers and of artists only sometimes reveal their methodological origins and process. Many self-conscious and self-reflexive creators have of course from time to time created works that reveal method in their very materiality. But, for the most part, creative process remains unseen, background chatter as it were, with little seeming connection to method.

Here is an example of a creative project that sees itself within the traditional methods of the social sciences.

“I am a lecturer with the Department of Photography at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, specialising in the fields of photojournalism and social documentary. My recent projects borrow heavily from the practices inherent in visual ethnography and include hospice and palliative care (Lloyd, Passing Time, 2000), documenting a small regional community outside of Brisbane (Something about Us, Logan Art Gallery, 2001) and, currently, working on a project looking into substance misuse in the Mt Isa district.” David Lloyd.

This is a hybrid of course and one of many works that are challenging conventional definitions of art and media. But, it points out that how fluid the boundaries between creative processes are and how careful we have to be in assuming *lack* of method when they may well be one.

Contingency is about methods that are applied to creative challenges without necessarily linking process to outcome. This is also similar to prototyping which is a process of experimental exploration that is as ideational as it is material.

More on this topic over the next few months.