On Why STEM Must Be STEAM

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. It’s an often-used term that encompasses all studies and careers in the hard sciences. The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a very fancy art school, has started a movement to convert STEM to STEAM, where the A stands for Art. Like many other scientists and science students, I support this movement enthusiastically (although I may sometimes forget to add the A), and I’m going to try to explain why.

What got me thinking about STEAM was, unsurprisingly, homework. As a physics major, most of my assignments involve reading from science and math textbooks. It is, for the most part, a miserable experience. Reading from textbooks is awful. All science students know it, and I think that many professors do, too (otherwise we’d just learn from the textbook and lectures would be all examples or debate). And it certainly isn’t awful because I hate reading. I love reading. In 8th grade, a teacher told my parents that he was intimidated by me because I was always sitting in the hallway reading Kafka. My floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my room are almost completely full. So, that’s definitely not why I hate reading textbooks.

I hate reading textbooks because, in my experience, at least 7 out of 10 STEM textbooks are poorly written. They have circular and unclear explanations, misleading figures, or unintelligible word problems. They fail to convey the information which we need to know and which made us want to study science in the first place. It’s a crying shame, and there is only one way to fix it.

Scientists need to learn how to express themselves.Β We need to be able to write effectively, in a variety of different styles. A lab report or academic paper is written differently from a pop-science book is written differently from a textbook, and an effective science writer has to know the difference. Since most scientists will at some point have to write about their work for some reason, we should all be effective science writers. And that starts with being effective writers in general.

While this is something that I feel quite passionately about, I will end my rant here. I realize that I have left out the other arts aside from writing, but they are also crucial for communicating ideas, especially more complex scientific ones, to an audience (if you design an unclear flow chart, it won’t help anyone understand anything). I’m not done writing about this issue, but I have 67 pages of textbook and a play to read, so I’ll have to save it for another time. If you want to learn more about it and are on twitter, I recommend following #Sackler for the next few days; the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication is happening, and it’s really interesting. It’s also streaming live here.

I want to end with an apology for not posting anything this month – I’m adjusting to being back at school. Hopefully I’ll get used to the workload soon and start writing here more often. If not, I’ll try to at least post some interesting links. Sorry!

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3 thoughts on “On Why STEM Must Be STEAM

  1. Even though the arts get genre’d into the humanities, I think they have at least as vital a connection to the sciences. Literature, even if we set aside scifi, which we shouldn’t, because it’s mad rich — tons of authors have been inspired by science, from Dante to Calvino to Steinbeck. I’m in a course on Nietzsche this semester, and he had very interesting ideas about art as “a necessary correlative of, and supplement for science.” Not gonna write an essay here, but: the idea that when science hits the boundaries of its own paradigms, art (not necessarily artwork, but artistic types of thought) is what comes to the rescue. So I agree with you absolutely that these fields should keep each other in mind. Also, artists do benefit hugely from a humanities-type knowledge of their field, but even more crucial is a science-type empirical will to search (not just to research) their own world/abilities in observation/practice. So yeah, yay for the STEAMpunks.

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