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An artist's argument for STEAM education

Curt Bailey

 
For the last 20 years or so, there has been a strong movement to promote and encourage STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) in the United States. Hallelujah! We need this. From a global competitiveness standpoint, we Americans must fully embrace the reality of our situation. We have been leaders in science and technology for a long time, but statistics show that other countries may be doing a better job at providing their populations with the knowledge required to win the race for scientific and technical know-how.
 
However, I also believe it would be to our benefit to add the letter "A" to the acronym and changing "STEM" to "STEAM." The "A" stands for Art. And by art, I mean "the arts:" drawing, sculpture, music, literature, etc. In this essay I want to present three reasons why we need to put the "A" in STEAM.
 
Before I start, you need to know that I am an industrial designer. I went to art school. And for the last 22 years I have been the president of Sundberg-Ferar, one of the country's longest operating product innovation consulting firms. Our team is made up of researchers, strategists, designers, engineers, and prototype builders. For 80 plus years, we have worked to innovate products in a wide variety of categories including consumer goods, medical equipment, and vehicles of all types. Our company stands at the crossroads of art and science and we strive everyday to improve the tools that we humans use to live. We have worked with hundreds of companies in dozens of industries, and that experience gives us a remarkable insight into how innovation happens (and, maybe more importantly, why innovation doesn't happen).
 
So here are my three arguments for adding the "A" for art…
 
1. Learn to embrace beauty…
 
The great American engineer Buckminster Fuller once said, "When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty, but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." I'm not sure if Bucky knew this intuitively or if he learned it, but I believe his observation to be insightful and accurate. Unfortunately, too many engineers that I've run across in my career have little appreciation for (or skills to recognize) beauty. In my industry, a designer who is oblivious to (or couldn't care less about) the science behind how something works will ultimately be limited in what he or she can accomplish. Likewise, an engineer or scientist who doesn't understand or appreciate beauty will be similarly handicapped. If our students, from an early age, can be exposed to the equally magical results of great technology and great art, then all disciplines will be better prepared to leverage their individual gifts more effectively.
 
2. Learn to embrace emotion…
 
Several years ago our company was responding to a request for proposal to help design a new line of electronic locksets (the fancy name for doorknobs with keypads and card readers). Our client (the lockset manufacturer) had spent considerable time and effort compiling a very thorough technical specification for the new product line. In fact, the 17-page document was so detailed and specific that it included things like the font to be used on the keypad and the brush texture for the chrome. It appeared that all of the "design" elements of the product had already been decided, prompting me to ask why they even needed us. The engineer who had written the spec laughed and asked if I was trying to talk myself out of a job. Just then, the VP of Marketing spoke up and said, "We need you because we want the new product line to be wicked cool."
 
I then asked them, "If you want 'wicked cool,' why isn't it in the spec?"
 
Ultimately, they wanted their product to have an emotional appeal. Art is all about emotion. What they wanted was an injection of "art" into their new line of technical products. Successful products and ideas have not only a rational appeal, but also an emotional appeal. Creating an understanding of art and its emotional appeal is crucial to any student interested in a technical field of pursuit.

3. Learn to embrace eccentricity…
 
"Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric." - Bertrand Russell
 
Perhaps the most valuable thing about arts education is that it's where we learn to be comfortable with "out-of-the-ordinary." Art is the discipline that most celebrates, encourages, and embraces the original and the creative. I can tell you that in my world of product development, "extraordinary" is almost always a subset of "out-of-the-ordinary." Unless a new product is at first out-of-the-ordinary, it usually doesn't stand a chance to become extraordinary.
 
Unfortunately, all animals, including us humans, have been naturally selected to possess a healthy fear of something we've never seen before. In the world of animal behavior this evolutionary survival trait is called "neophobia." In the pursuit of innovation, we can overcome neophobia, but only with training. Art and creativity are all about creating things that are new and different; things that are eccentric. I fear that an emphasis on STEM without the addition of the "A" (Art) could lead to a gradual dilution of creativity skills and a withdrawal to the safety associated with the familiar and the known.
 
Parents, teachers, counselors and administrators know that our kids are each born with different innate skills and preferences. It would be a shame if kids with a passion for art were somehow led to believe that there is not a place for them in the world of science, technology and innovation. It would also be a shame if kids interested in technology found their future achievements limited by missing an opportunity to leverage art and its associated beauty, emotion, and eccentricity.

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Since 1992, Curt Bailey has been the president of Sundberg-Ferar. Founded in 1934, Sundberg-Ferar ranks among the world's first, and longest operating, industrial design innovation studios. Curt and his team de-commoditize products in a wide variety of industries including housewares, transportation, medical, recreational, and consumer electronics. Curt is named as primary inventor on scores of U.S. patents and has spoken at numerous events on innovation and design. Follow Sundberg-Ferar on Twitter and on Facebook.

This is the second piece in a series of features on the importance of transforming Southeast Michigan into a STEM hub. It is supported by the Michigan Science Center.
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