STEM, STEAM, STEAHM

Exhibit at the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention, Bellingham,  WA

The idea of integrating art and science is one I re-examine
periodically. Lately in the news I’ve noticed the frequent advocation of
STEM teaching in the schools, the acronym standing for science,
technology, engineering, and math. The importance of these subjects is
invariably justified by an argument that we need people well-versed in
these four subjects in order to compete effectively in the world market.
The implication I take from this is that other possible areas of study
are NOT important in the marketplace and hence can be ignored. However,
as I’ve pointed out in other essays, you can have all the communications
technology in the world, but without “content,” a large proportion of
which is contributed by people who, by one means or another, are skilled
in such areas as art, film-making, history, drama, music, writing, etc,
your technology is moot. I’m reluctant to point it out, but the
advertising that drives our economy (unfortunately) is wholly the
product of people trained in other subjects besides science, technology,
engineering, and math.

I have heard it suggested that the STEM acronym should be revised to
STEAM, thereby throwing a bone to the arts advocates. What about taking
one more step and making it STEAHM, since there are abundant indications
that general education in the “Humanities” in our country is sadly
neglected? I suggest that HISTORY would be an important component of
humanities education, including the history of technology and the lives
of those who were responsible for fundamental advances in scientific
knowledge: people like Newton, Galileo, Faraday, Bell, Edison, Marie
Curie, Cecilia Payne, Tesla, Marconi, and, of course, Einstein, to name
only a few working in the physical sciences. (I included the first names
of the women, to emphasize that there are a LOT of women in the sciences
too, and for many of them recognition did not come easily.) Starting
science instruction by telling the stories of the scientists and their
lives first, instead of mentioning them only in passing, if not at all,
is one good way to inspire eventual interest in the nuts and bolts of
science and technology.

I also believe it’s important to study the historical uses and adoption
of older technologies in order foster awareness of the possible ways in
which new, untried technologies might affect us in the future. We
Americans tend to accept any new technology enthusiastically, without
critique. However there are cultures, such as the Amish, who carefully
consider how to fit technology into their lives. It’s difficult to
imagine many mainstream Americans would be sympathetic to such a stance, but at least we
should be adopting new technologies with our eyes open so that we have a
better chance of guiding their uses toward positive ends.

Beyond the foregoing, I wish to explore a more subtle point about
science that concerns me.

During my contemplation of Art versus Science, partially inspired by
reading Fritjof Capra’s book, Learning from Leonardo: Decoding the
Notebooks of a Genius
, I realized that I can’t imagine science and art
being practiced as isolated disciplines in Leonardo da Vinci’s time, as
we experience them now. Da Vinci was an artist, also a sculptor, a
designer of numerous machines, and was generally interested in all the
phenomena apparent in the physical world around him. Bearing this in
mind, it strikes me that currently, when it comes to educating young
people, tacking the label “science,” “math,” engineering,” and
“technology” onto subject matter sets learners up by association
to expect a painful experience. This may be so partly because scientific
and technical studies are justified primarily as means to compete in the
marketplace, not as interesting subjects in themselves. The marketplace,
or the job market, is an abstraction to youngsters, because it’s outside
of their experience. When that concept is also conflated with
competition it’s not only abstract but potentially threatening. Subject
matter framed this way is rendered alien and in no way related to the
inherent joy of discovery that science is capable of inspiring.

For the purpose of encouraging young people (or even older ones) to an
interest in science, math, and related subjects, I believe it would be
wiser and more to the point to characterize them much differently by
including them as part of humanities instead of as separate subjects.
Hence “humanities” would include science rather than science being
taught as something apart and alien. Indeed, no education is complete
without a serious amount of instruction in the sciences, but they should
be introduced as a natural and fascinating backdrop to ordinary life,
not as a means to compete in the marketplace.

I believe that emphasizing science as an economic tool has led directly
or indirectly to the distrust many people harbor toward scientists and
the sciences. For example, when someone comes out with a new study that
says I should eat this, not eat that or, particularly, take
such-and-such a medicine, my first question has become, “Who funded the
study.” By the same token, when scientist claim the climate is changing,
the first question hard core skeptics ask is, who paid for the research?
Personally I trust NOAA scientists more than I trust corporate ones, but
climate skeptics can justifiably question who did the research and why.
As a matter of fact, oil companies have funded a good deal of the
research that questions climate change. Science in too many instances
has become a tool used by corporations and politicians to manipulate the
public. How do you know who to trust? Science once had a reputation for
being impartial, but that was never completely so, and is less so now
than ever.

The subject matter commonly put under the category “science,” is
fundamental to our life on earth, and when presented skillfully is
inherently interesting. My grandson, now turning five, was asking
questions about the stars, the sun, and the universe at age two, or
earlier. Why does it get dark at night? What is the moon? What is the
sun? Why am I able to think, see, feel, talk? (I haven’t heard him ask
that latter one yet, but no doubt he’ll get there by the time he’s 8.)
In my case, early curiosity about the invisible force making magnets
stick to things intrigued me and led to a voracious reading of science
books from then on. I was instinctively curious from a very early age
about everything around me, especially unseen forces manifesting as
electrical storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards, and turbulent
phenomena such as water vortices and waves. I was naturally drawn to
learn more, just out of curiosity. Every young child, if you carefully
notice his or her exploratory style, is a born scientist. They act,
observe, and hypothesize about everything around them. It’s rudimentary
and instinctive scientific research. If nobody derails that
instinctively conducted “science,” it can inform one’s whole life.

What I’ve just attempted to articulate is a style of interest in the
world paralleling the sort of interest exemplified by Leonardo da
Vinci’s life. It’s a craving to engage with physical reality on a deeper
than superficial level. That was an important and perhaps primary idea
behind the formation of Mindport, to present exhibits that embody
physical phenomena in such a way as to plant the question in the minds
of visitors of any age: “What’s that all about?”

Beyond the idea of making art and science partners under humanities, I
suggest that we need new ways of characterizing both these panoramic
subjects. Possibly a retreat to traditional ways of understanding them,
at least for the purposes of teaching science to youngsters or lay
beginners, would be desirable. For example, in Isaac Newton’s time what
we now call “science” was referred to as “Natural Philosophy.” That’s in
the vein of what I’m suggesting. In fact I believe that “natural
philosophy” presented as a form of spiritual practice would be more
effective in drawing people ultimately to a formal study of various
scientific fields than attempting to whip up enthusiasm by presenting
“science” as a competitive path to economic nirvana.

Kevin Jones