The Art of STEM
Understanding the Foundation of Science
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today’s topic picks apart the popular trope of inserting Art into Science Technology Engineering, and Math, otherwise known as STEM. We’ll look at why trying to piggyback on the STEM initiatives not only harms Art, but totally misses the point of the relationship between Art and STEM.
There's been a trend over the years to insert Art into the concept of STEM. This normally results in the acronym STEAM, and it really clouds everything up. Science Technology, Engineering, and Math are academic disciplines. So is Art. STEM emerged to correct the issue that not enough people went into those academic fields. STEM did not emerge because too few people went into Art in college. In fact, the most pressing issue for STEM was that those pursuing Art degrees were ignoring STEM. Trying to push Art into STEM is just a little odd until you pull back a few layers.
All About Funding:
What it really boils down to is that, in an era of funding cuts for education (but certainly not for administration, that funding has ballooned at the same time curriculum is being cut) it comes down to a fight for dollars. Art is just trying to jump on the funding being allocated to STEM to avoid their programs being reduced in primary education.
This highlights a bit of a dilemma because the ultimate goal is to have more STEM graduates from college, and yet we also need more Art in primary education. I’ll try to tease this apart more:
Our focus in K-12 education has shifted toward pure college prep 101. This resulted in a myopic approach that cut both Art and applied science from the curriculum. We had to fight to keep Art, Music, Home Economics, Shop (both wood and mechanical), and more. The focus turned to pure prep subjects like Reading and Math leaving both those who went to college and those who didn’t, unprepared for college or the real world, without much STEM or Art.
So, in a large way, the push to put Art in STEM is one I can understand. But I think the argument is better if we understand where it really fits into the conversation.
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The Art of STEM
A popular argument for putting Art into STEM revolves around the worry that STEM will somehow divorce itself from Art and we need to ensure that this doesn’t happen. However, having been through a technical undergraduate at an Engineering school, getting my graduate degree in Systems Engineering and working in Engineering my entire non-military career, I can say that I've never met a STEM person who doesn't have an Art.
I’ve even turned it into an interview question as we wind down from technical STEM conversations. I use it to learn more about the ‘whole candidate’ and I'll ask:
"What is your Art".
Without fail, or even hesitation, they'll have something to bring up immediately whether it be poetry, photography, painting, music, cooking, dance, and more.
On the flip side, I've met many artists without a single scrap of STEM. They don’t understand how to read an academic paper, and they show very little interest in the science behind things. They trust their feelings more than analyzing the facts. This is clearly a generalization, but it holds up as a stereotype quite well.
So, it doesn’t make sense to stuff Art into STEM as much as it does to teach STEM to the Arts. Yet this still doesn't address the relationship between the two; Therefore, I'd recommend not STEAM but STEM/A.
Art underpins all of STEM and is a critical educational element in any STEM degree. It also highlights the need for a relationship between the two fields. Just like the Liberal Arts education of classical universities wasn’t intended to teach children of wealthy parents a trade, as they were typically raised in family businesses. It was instead intended to round out a technical program with philosophy, art, and theology, to create a more complete and holistic individual.
So, teach art but teach it in the right context. Because an Art discipline will never stand shoulder to shoulder with STEM as a paid profession and we still need more people in STEM fields to maintain our technological advancements. That doesn’t mean Art is worth less, because it actually provides the foundation STEM sits on.
Art meets Science
In my experience, the Art crowd ignores or pushes back on science. I admit, this is probably my bias from my background. However, when Art pushes into STEM, it’s not trying to fuse into STEM, but gain the same recognition and funding as STEM.
Yet art is always a direct beneficiary of STEM and its technology. For example, we’ve long understood ‘Good’ Art. The most famous painters were considered superior by all viewers. What made that so remained unknown until science analyzed and discovered that what all the famous painters had in common was a ratio of composition. This pattern also exists in nature, and in all other forms of art. It forms the ‘rule of thirds’ in photographic composition and it actually exists in the key pattern on a piano and in the composition of music. It is known as the perfect ratio and can be represented by the ratio captured in the Fibonacci sequence of 1,1,2,3,5,8,13…
STEM has created technologies to capture images in photos, then automated photo capture to overlay grids showing rules of thirds. It has also created technologies for digital capture, dynamic shutter and aperture, and many more. STEM understood, and captured the ‘art’ of photography and build it in. Today aspiring artists can grab a cell phone camera and crank out pictures that only photographic experts could produce just twenty years ago. Art met Science.
Recently there’s been a lot of concern about technology replacing art with the advent of generative AI programs like OpenAI’sDALL-E 2 graphic art generator and their ChatGPT natural language model. There are rising concerns across a wide swath of the Art world with an A.I.-Generated Picture winning an art prize, writers warning that illustrators will be the first to go, and more. We explored some of this in Can AI be Creative? and, fundamentally, what Art brings to the table isn’t something that technology can do on its own and, while it’s impressive, there are serious limitations to what AI can do in Art. STEM has, and likely always will, rely on Art.
Science meets Art.
Art underpins science. Whether it be data storytelling, or user interface / experience UI/UX, or building architecture. It even extends to the artistic rendering of images in our galaxy that helps people ‘see’ the nuances of space. For example, the first ‘picture’ of a black hole is actually an artistic composition from multiple data sets, often in light frequencies we cannot see, rendered to capture the essence.
Science without art is mundane and drab and nearly impossible to communicate well to the general public, (Trust me, if you’ve read a scientific paper recently, you know what I mean.") and yet Art, through simple things like infographics can provide easy understanding of complex STEM subjects like the comic strip xkcd does so well.
Suggesting that this influence is new ignores the nearly uncoupled fusion of Art and STEM for centuries following the Renaissance. Leonardo Davinci was known for his complex drawings, nigh art, of mechanical systems, and Charles Darwin created hyper detailed drawings of animals to illustrate the concept of evolution. It wasn’t until more recently, with the abstract concepts of Math and Physics that a schism appeared in what used to be fusion.
Yet even through time, the sciences have resorted to models, images, and drawings to explain their ideas. Sometimes the output might be more sterile than an artist might appreciate, but there is always Art baked into the Scientific endeavor. This just demonstrates another example for why comparing the two as separate is a false dichotomy.
Not an Either Or
It may be argued that Science lost its focus on Art but I think the larger issue is that artists stepped away from science, and that’s not ideal! The main thing I hope we can consider is that this isn’t an either/or and by applying a systems perspective, and looking at the bigger picture we can achieve a synergy just like Fiona Rose Beyerle wrote for UC Davis Art vs. STEM: Why Choose Just One?
I find myself using my cross-disciplinary skills every day. In my science classes, I learn how to analyze complex problems through understanding data and difficult concepts. In my humanities classes, I learn how to communicate my ideas through writing. All the skills I have learned in my classes have helped me earn internships and jobs. In the workplace, I am seen as a well-rounded candidate, having a concentration in both arts and STEM.
This is exactly the Polymathic mindset that we strive for. Just like we want to avoid the false binaries in dialog and politics, we should also avoid those same false binaries between STEM and Art. We need more Art in primary schools, and we need more applied STEM in our industries, influenced by Art.
Clearing up the fog of STEAM and rightfully placing Art as the foundation of STEM highlights their inseparable relationship as well as avoiding any perceived conflict between them. It’s the synergy of Art and Science that allows us to make beautiful innovations that advance humanity. It’s the Art of STEM.
I felt it was important to add this photo to the essay to demonstrate a key example of why I wrote it. That art is math. That history and English keeps the entrepreneur from repeating history and able to communicate ideas. That chemistry can inform complex and beautiful music. Physics? Sports Is Physics. It just bothers me when you see something purporting to be helpful which is so blindly ignorant of reality.
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