Lessons From STEM to STEAM: Why STEAM is the Path to an Awesome Future

by Nicole Hodsdon

Lessons From STEM to STEAM: Why STEAM is the Path to an Awesome Future

I wrote previously (My Journey From STEM to STEAM) about my past in engineering and how learning Industrial Design has changed my perspective on product development for the better.  I talked about how important it is to include Art and Design in our increasingly technology-focused education system.  Having both parts of the product development process under my belt now, here are three lessons I’ve learned for why STEAM is the path to a more wholistic future:

Find the right questions in order to fully understand the task at hand.

The difference between my engineering education and design education was in how success was achieved: Success in engineering school depended on memorization and repetition of “what to know” and “what to think."  Success in design school depended on critical thinking and creative interpretation to discover “how to know” and “how to think.”  That ability to think critically and creatively interpret situations is the key to our new technology-driven economy.  Critical thinking is how we discover the root problem that needs solving.  Creative interpretation allows us to see new ways of using our knowledge of how things are to imagine new possibilities for how things could be. 

Develop a solution that appeals to our emotions.

McMansion Hell
McMansion Photo: McMansionHell.com

What happens when you strip all form from your values and just focus on function?  We’ve all seen the bland, soul-sucking Soviet apartment developments of the Cold War.  Nobody deserves a life so void of beauty.  On the other hand, what happens when you strip all function and durability from your values and focus exclusively on form?  I give you McMansions - ginormous homes built in the US during the real estate boom which consist of questionable material quality and all of the “house” design elements ever imagined literally stuck onto the front of the building.  There is obviously a need for both imagination and prudence to create appealing, functional, and progressive products, which leads into the third lesson.

Collaborate to bring to life beautiful and durable solutions that improve our lives.

This is where both the engineers and the artists need to get their hands dirty.  Together.  STEM is certainly valuable, but when we place too much importance on these fields, it creates a rift between the “implementers” (STEM people) and the “designers” (Art people).  I saw this rift first-hand throughout my engineering career.  Some engineers will tell you that they don’t have an artistic bone in their body.  They don’t understand why designers fuss about shape, color, material, and proportion so much when those things don't serve a real purpose.  On the other hand, some designers will claim that they can't possibly understand the complexities of engineering a product.  They are happy to drop off a thoroughly impossible design on an engineer’s desk and tell her to make it work.  They have no idea what it will take to bring this product to life, and then get angry when engineering changes their design beyond recognition.  We would all be better off if more implementers had (or at least appreciated) the creativity, imagination, and empathy that comes from learning to create art.  And likewise, if designers approached their work with the practicality, knowledge, and prudence that comes from learning how things work.

Our innate talents and interests are unique to each one of us.  It’s a shame that children like me who have artistic talents are being led to believe that they have to leave their eccentricities behind in order to get a “real job” in science or technology.  On the flip side, it’s no less shameful for kids interested in science and technology to see their achievements limited because their education only included what’s safe, familiar, and known.  Perhaps by adding the “A” (Art) to STEM curriculums, the technology leaders of tomorrow will have a deeper appreciation for finding the right questions, developing emotionally appealing solutions, and collaborating to bring to life products that improve lives.  That would truly be an awesome future!

Nicole Hodsdon
Nicole Hodsdon