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STEM to STEAM

'Steve Jobs described himself and his colleagues at Apple as artists'

Steven Ross Pomeroy

Most parents will be familiar with the acronym STEM and the move towards schools bringing these subjects - science, technology, engineering, and maths – together to give young people the skills they need in the modern economy.

What fewer parents will have heard of is STEAM, in which the arts are added to the mix. Yes, you did read that right – the arts, often seen as the poor cousin of more ‘serious’ academic subjects and sometimes even seen as being at odds with science - is being increasingly brought into the fold as teachers recognise the need to incorporate creative thinking and visual skills.

The collaboration is exciting and has huge potential, as well as attracting a whole new cohort of students who might otherwise disengage from STEM subjects, which can be perceived by some youngsters as tedious and unreachable. With art and design invited to the party, a different, more inclusive, imaginative and innovative picture emerges.

However, schools and parents (who we know have a huge influence on young people’s subject choices) need to put our foot on the gas if we are to catch up with the US, where the STEAM movement is already massive. Spearheaded by academics and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) who planned out an entire curriculum bringing together the five STEAM subjects, the focus in this – and now many other – American educational institutions is to merge the arts and sciences, with some exhilarating results.

Back in Britain, too many schools aren’t just lagging behind when it comes to STEAM – they’ve not even getting it right with STEM. Earlier this year, research by OnePoll for the Baker Dearing Educational Trust found that almost two-thirds of young people working STEM careers believe that schools don’t understand which skills employers need. Similar numbers said they didn’t understand that the subjects they studied at school would affect their future, with many feeling there is a fundamental misunderstanding between schools and STEM employers. Perhaps most worryingly of all, nearly half said the subjects they studied at school were useless in the world of work.

The concept of STEAM isn’t new – you only have to turn to Leonardo Da Vinci. Moreover, it still holds true today. ‘Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician,’ wrote Steven Ross Pomeroy back in 2012. Pomeroy goes onto to point out that 'Camouflage for soldiers in the United States armed forces was invented by American painter Abbot Thayer' and 'Earl Bakken based his pacemaker on a musical metronome.'

So let’s big up art and design for young people from as earlier age as possible and value these subjects every bit as, say, maths. As the academics and students from RISD point out on their website, it’s to all our benefit to get behind transforming STEM into STEAM.

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