Think STEAM not STEM

Translation of Bauhaus Curriculum Diagram (1929).

“I believe that art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century” (Maeda, 2013, p. 2).

STEM + Art = STEAM

Former Rhode Island School of Design president, John Maeda states, “Innovation happens when convergent thinkers, who march straight ahead towards their goal, combine forces with divergent thinkers – those who professionally wander, who are comfortable being uncomfortable, and who look for what is real” (2013, p. 1). I first noticed Maeda’s name reading Casey Reas and Ben Fry’s wonderful Processing Handbook (2014). I later checked out his (equally wonderful) book Creative Code: Aesthetics + Computation (2004), a work that grapples with such issues as information visualization, interaction design, and education. For more on Maeda and the current gap between art and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), check out this article, as well as, The Steam Journal.

Cognitive Operations

The distinction between convergent and divergent thinking was first popularised by creativity theorist J.P. Guilford (1959). Both are cognitive operations, discreet – and, importantly, measurable – components of thought. Convergent thinking describes cognitive operations that aim to narrow down possibilities in the search of a solution to a set problem. Divergent thinking, on the other hand, logically generates alternatives that branch off from a common starting point. Both operations are necessary for creative thought.

Whilst convergent thinking is not necessarily the go-to mode of thinking of STEM scholars any more than divergent thinking is for the arts, what can be said is that historical and cultural trends informing postwar intellectual life in the West have given rise to certain tacit biases and identifications that have fragmented the knowledge base and led to the valuing of specialisation over integration, and analysis over synthesis. Lets face it, divergent thinking has been theorised and discussed for some 60 years now. And yet, so many people still have trouble distinguishing between divergent thinking and its country cousins “thinking outside the box” (how I loathe that phrase) and “brainstorming.” Be honest. Can you tell the difference?

Institutionalised

The manner in which higher education institutions are structured according to groups of related disciplines results in a tendency for research and knowledge to remain isolated within de facto boundaries of relevancy. Great creative leaps are all too often inhibited, rather than facilitated, by the necessary structures and conventions of what have become mini-cultures in their own right. Just try getting peers from different arts departments to collaborate, or even speak the same language, let alone for humanities scholars to collaborate with those from STEM backgrounds. As for socialising with groups outside of one’s own discipline. That seems just downright weird.

Examples whereby disciplinary barriers have been intentionally broken down – such as the Bauhaus School during the short-lived Weimar Republic – stand as a testament to what can be achieved when integration is valued as much as specialisation. New emerging interdisciplinary fields such as humour studies, popular music, and record production are yet further examples. Be warned however, even in these latter instances, the danger remains that blind orthodoxy can replace rational discourse once effective means of study have become firmly established.

Less and better

As Maeda notes, the 20th century was defined, in part, by great technological leaps. Unfortunately, humanity is now in the unenviable position of having to sift through the good, the bad and the useless, before working out how to actually use [or even find and focus on] all this stuff. Industrial design is one area that considers how technology can best interface with real humans, and their very real needs. If you’ve ever used a product by a certain computer company whose design ethos was influenced by (amongst other things) architect-turned-designer Dieter Rams, you’ll get the point. In fact, in a recent article Rams laments that, if anything, such design efforts have been too successful for society’s own good. Record production scholar Simon Zagorski-Thomas (2014) likewise discusses the significant ways in which technological devices covertly influence creativity via their design ‘scripts.’

It’s apt that the above 2018 film titled Rams (by film-maker Gary Hustwit) features an original score by self-confessed ‘reductive’ creative Brian Eno. My own research into creativity (2015) found taht the reductive approach to creativity (whereby all but a few core elements are filtered out as options as a means of concentrating mental energy) is a necessary condition of the playfulness so often encouraged by innovative practitioners belonging to a wide variety of fields (Heiser, 2015). Therefore, designers should always consider how their design scripts influence the phenomenological state of the user as well as the usual (for e.g.,) ergonomic and aesthetic considerations.

Inspired by Mother Nature

Before signing off, I’d like to draw your attention to quite a different, but awe-inspiring, example of the fruitful application of the STEAM approach (in this case, an EA approach): The famous kinetic ‘Strand Beest’ sculptures of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Once you’ve made it onto the Simpsons, you know you’ve made it. Enjoy.

(c) 2019 Marshall Heiser

References:

Feynman, R. P., Leighton, R., & Hutchings, E. (1985). “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a curious character. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Guilford, J. P. (1959). Three faces of intellect. In American Psychologist, 14(8), 469-479.

Hadamard, J. (1945). An essay on the psychology of invention in the mathematical field. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Heiser, M. S. (2015). The playful frame of mind: An exploration of its influence upon creative flow in a post-war popular music-making context. (Doctoral dissertation). Brisbane, Australia: Griffith University.

Koestler, A. (1964). The act of creation. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Maeda, J. (2013). STEM + Art = STEAM, In The STEAM Journal: 1(1), Article 34.

Maeda, J. (2004). Creative Code: Aesthetics + Computation. New York, NY:  Thames & Hudson.

Reas, C. & Fry, B. (2014). Processing: A Programming Handbook for Visual Designers and Artists (Second Edition). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Zagorski-Thomas, S. (2014). The musicology of record production. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.