Every year software makes a new kind of decision that humans previously made themselves–from what news to read to which data to scrutinize, from when to turn left to how long to toast our bread. In response to this trend, pressure has been building to adapt 21st-century education to the needs of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. Some legislators have called upon universities to discount tuition for science- and technology-oriented degrees, while outside the ivory tower massive open online courses and small-scale bootcamps have cropped up to focus on coding, with various degrees of success.
Meanwhile, a small but growing counter-narrative asserted by a spate of recent books has made the case that careers restricted to quantitative and analytic skills are precisely the jobs most likely to be replaced by algorithms and robots. According to these thinkers, the “fuzzy” skills prioritized by the arts and humanities will be more adaptable to change in the workplace.
The last five years have seen practitioners with a foot in both the arts and sciences propose a third way: turning STEM into STEAM by integrating the arts and humanities into science-oriented education and professions. This hybrid approach would marry the creativity of the arts with the performativity of science, to the betterment of both.
Turning STEM into STEAM requires more than just gathering scientists and artists together over coffee–though that’s a start. In the United States, the cultures of science and art can seem diametrically opposed. One has ample funding from both the private sector and institutes like the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health; the other seems always in danger of losing what little government sponsorship exists in the form of the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts. One values focus and rigor; the other, lateral thinking and spontaneity. One prepares graduates for plentiful, lucrative jobs, often without a sense of moral purpose; the other prepares graduates for a creative and fulfilling life, often without economic security. One publishes in peer-reviewed journals; the other exhibits work in galleries or online. One contributes to a Silicon Valley-style, globalized economy; the other enhances the local color that makes Maine a cherished destination.
Yet the stakes for integrating the two are high–not just to inject the arts and letters with renewed relevance in a software-driven society, but to confront some of the gaps in the way scientists and technologists approach problems.
From gene editing to artificial intelligence to social media “filter bubbles,” scientists and technologists have stepped into powerful new roles–and into ethical quagmires. The arts provide moral landmarks that help to navigate such momentous breakthroughs. Can you make music without harmony? Should we act like Madam Bovary? Can a painting reflect more than one point of view? To complement science’s interrogation of what is, the arts ask what could be–and the humanities provide a cultural framework to evaluate those possibilities. [At the Edge of Art]
Despite the nationwide push by proponents such as Code.org to teach programming from kindergarten through college, retention in computer science and related fields lags far behind the arts, and many of the coding boot camps that cropped up in the last two years have shuttered their doors. While an ever increasing number of jobs in the 21st-century will require some understanding of programming, it’s clear that the ways we are trying to teach code are not working for a broad swath of the people whose professions will evaporate if they don’t learn to code.
One of the most well documented deficiencies in the tech sector is the underrepresentation of women, from the C-suites of Facebook and Google to engineering staff on the lower decks. Recent studies suggest that college is the time most women drop out of computer science and related fields. While putative causes include the lack of female peers, professors, and models in mass media, another cause cited by some researchers is the lack of cultural, ethical, or personal connection between what is taught and what is relevant to those women’s lives. The higher percentage of women in fields such as art and design suggests a more inclusive approach to educating a technically literate future generation might be to incorporate more teaching techniques and issues from the arts.
Sample topics for discussion
- Is code the new literacy?
- Is software and the Internet making the production and distribution of art more or less egalitarian?
- Is it more important to invigorate the humanities with big data, or to humanize big data with the humanities?
- What are some good and bad examples of art–science collaboration? Can we derive lessons about how such entanglements work best?
- How can artists and scientists work together, when their expectations of success and relative resources are so different?
- Are artists best employed to portray complex scientific developments like climate change and gene editing for the lay public? Or, instead of providing aesthetic window dressing to predetermined meanings, can they play a more critical role in the production of scientific knowledge and technical infrastructures?
- Can artists contribute to scientific research without a background in science? Can scientists produce artwork without a background in art history or studio art?
- Can artists such as SymbioticA and Stelarc who confront the ethical challenges of today’s technologies help prepare us for future challenges?
- Can a multi-disciplinary approach made possible by STEM to STEAM help us re-design our cultural, economic, and political systems so they regenerate rather than destroy the ecological basis for life on our planet?