Ask The Readers — Give Me An “A”!

Ask The Readers — Give Me An “A”!

No, this isn’t about grades.

I got back from Maker Faire last weekend on Monday. It’s a festival dedicated to science, engineering, ingenuity and creativity. Really it’s a bunch of nerds like me hanging out, showing off their projects and selling their kits and wares. It was amazing. But the thing that struck me most was the native integration of artwork with all of these technology projects.

Art and technology have an interesting co-existence. Some people call it “design”, like how “Industrial Designers” are the ones that draw up cars and other items to make them prettified for consumers. Engineering is sometimes the underlying skill set for many types of art, as well. In general though, the forward facing part of a product is the last concern of engineers; really it’s the first thing that consumers see in a product, it’s actually quite important. And all along the way, when artist and engineers are involved, there’s bound to be conflict between the two because of the conflicting priorities.

So back to the title and Maker Faire. Another interesting part of the festival is the heavy STEM educational focus. But there has been a rising tide of questioning whether schooling around Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) should get one more dance partner: Art. Should STEM become STEAM?

At first, I was solidly on the “no” side of the fence. I thought that the “touchy feely” part of art would corrupt the focus required to do hard calculations. But seeing all the beautiful installations and how much latent engineering is often required for the most compelling art these days, I now say, “Heck yeah it should be”. While I’m not a fan of Art usurping the needs of other types of education, I think it also provides something that most STEM educational programs often lack: context. When teaching the most complicated topics in STEM, it’s a good idea to tell your students why they need to learn it. If art helps to further the message, I’m all for it. Another look at art is that it’s primarily a creative endeavor (though there are some very technical concepts that any artist must master). In a world increasingly flooded with engineers that can do rote calculations, engineers that are creative are even more valuable than before. If an art curriculum helps to develop creative tendencies, it’s a good thing in my opinion.

I also enjoyed this talk by Adam Savage of Mythbusters, who gave a talk on the main stage about similar topics and his own entrance into the world of engineering (hint: through art endeavors)


So what do you think, dear reader? Should art become a critical part of STEM education? Why or why not?


Thanks to the Tapigami folks for bringing their tape and cloth city to Maker Faire (pictured above). It was my favorite exhibit of Maker Faire and inspired this post. One more below, click on the images for higher res versions.


I always enjoy watching Adam’s talks. His views are very much in line with mine, for the most part.

Like you, I do think that art education (I’ll include music in this) is as important as the more technical fields. For evidence, I will point to one thing: the vast number of engineers I run across who are also musicians. Myself included. You too, Chris. Jeri as well. She told me once she spent a lot of time in choirs in her past, never mind that amazing C64 bass she made.

Something I’ve been noticing lately, too, is the trend in the other direction. People who are training or have trained as artists are crossing over into the world of engineering. The Arduino was originally designed for them. It seems to me that the creativity required by both fields are very similar. This is purely anecdotal at this point, though. Maybe someone else has some hard numbers.

Argh! I can’t believe I completely spaced including the entire point I was trying to get to!


I like the idea of STEM changing to STEAM. Why? Well, as above, I feel an arts education is important, but there is a reason beyond that: branding.

The branding that can be pulled of with STEAM would be frickin’ amazing! “Help America Rebuild its STEAM!” “Full STEAM ahead for our nation’s schools!” “With STEAM, we can power our future!”

The possibilities are endless.

Many people might poo-poo the idea of this kind of branding, but the fact is that this kind of pithy communication is essential for spreading these ideas far and wide.

Just attended a Maker Fair in Raleigh. Interesting mix of engineering and art there. Yes I agree that art has a place in engineering. Art can make the difference in whether a design is accepted or not. But there is a difference between design (art) and engineering. I’ve worked with many designers who made great art on paper (or computer screen) that could not be translated into practical devices. It doesn’t help that the title “engineer” is misapplied to so many other professions. I know artists who call themselves engineers although they do not have engineering training or degrees (sometimes no coursework in science at all) and can only create fantasy products that cannot be realized via today’s technology. I’m not saying that one must have an Engineering degree to function as an engineer – I’m concerned that too many non-functional “engineers” blur the definition of that profession, making it harder on the true engineers. Often these designers get away with their contributions to an impossible project while the engineers get blamed for not making it happen. But I suppose that’s because it is easier for most people to judge whether they like the looks of a design than understand the realities of creating a product.

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