Steam Engine

The two-stroke power of science and art by Alex Dery Snider and Heather Kirn Lanier.

The strength of the U.S. economy and the improvements in Americans’ quality of life since World War II has been largely attributed to advancements in science and technology, from lasers used in surgeries, CD players, and supermarkets, to the internet. We carry in our pockets cell phones with more computing power than the machines that put men on the moon. However, the international economic landscape is shifting, and the United States must compete globally in a way it has not had to in decades past. Policymakers, business leaders, and educators alike cite the importance of maintaining our edge in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields as a key factor in our national economic competitiveness. The National Academies report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” put it bluntly: “Without high-quality, knowledge-intensive jobs and the innovative enterprises that lead to discovery and new technology, our economy will suffer and our people will face a lower standard of living.”

But, in addition to technical know-how, innovation needs creativity—a quality often associated with the arts. While the STEM fields and the arts are valued in their own rights, many people are now wondering if there is a greater advantage to be found in combining them.

Babette Allina ’81 is on the forefront of this way of thinking. As executive director, government relations and external affairs for the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), she devotes the bulk of her time to an initiative called “STEAM,” an acronym RISD coined to represent the integration of the arts in the STEM fields.

“The mantra here,” says Allina, “is the disciplines together are stronger than apart. Particularly if you’re looking for creativity in the workforce and problem solving.”

“I believe art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century,” said former RISD President John Maeda at a 2013 STEM-to-STEAM congressional briefing. Maeda cited the MP3 player as a classic example of a technology that wasn’t desirable until Apple humanized it. With the iPod, design made technology interesting.

Maeda has described Allina as “the architect of all of the STEAM work in the country,” and says Allina is the reason that STEAM has hit lawmakers from Congress to the State Department, and culture makers that include the National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Allina’s work a decade earlier helped sharpen her focus on STEAM. As director of government relations for College of the Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, Allina was assembling a large National Science Foundation grant for the state. “But as a Bennington alum who did politics and painting,” she says, “and was responsible for how you develop research in the state that has one of the best art and design schools in the country, I included [RISD] in the science grant.”

The NSF advised Allina to take RISD out. But Allina believed in the imperative of an interdisciplinary approach: art deserved a place at the table of innovation. She tried again, this time giving RISD a lead spot on the grant along with the University of Rhode Island and Brown University. The grant was accepted, garnering the state twenty million dollars over five years. “So we went from the NSF balking at including an art school,” Allina says, “to [RISD] being the only art and design school” to lead this type of grant.

RISD took note and recruited Allina shortly thereafter.

Allina and her team emphasize that STEAM is not a departure from STEM—it is a partnership. The two fields must work together to better prepare the nation’s workforce for a future in which creativity is one of the only known necessities.

The mantra here is the disciplines together are stronger than apart. Particularly if you’re looking for creativity in the workforce and problem solving.

Recent data corroborates the value of creativity in the workforce. In a 2010 IBM survey of over 1,500 CEOs, the single most crucial factor selected for a company’s future success was creativity. And a 2012 Adobe study found that 78 percent of recent college graduates see creativity as important to their current field.

Jay Schunter ’11 is one of those graduates. He studied music at Bennington and believes that experience gives him an advantage in his current work: a graduate mechanical engineering program at Boston University. “I think studying music [and] the arts taught me to see an idea or a solution to a problem as a whole, rather than just these isolated parts,” he said. “You need to get from point A to point B and realistically, there could be many ways to do that. Making that decision is where you get to exercise your creativity and that is when the thing becomes your own.”

Fulbright award winner Ben Underwood ’13 sees a parallel in his experience studying music and his role as CEO of Fuel City, which is cultivating the emerging industry of anaerobic digesters. These convert organic waste into renewable energy and fertilizer. Ben finds that the primary barrier for the adoption of the technology is a lack of connections between the right people. He sees his path, “not only in the sense of a business—but as an artistic pursuit. It’s fundamentally about finding ways for diverse voices to add to a common expression. My senior concert used sound waves. The media I’m interested in now are metal and concrete.”

While there is likely to be an increase in the number of STEM jobs in the U.S. in the coming years, a major barrier is that U.S. students are not performing up to their potential, especially compared with their international counterparts. The STEM Education Coalition projects that while STEM jobs in the U.S. will grow significantly over the next six years, the majority of high school seniors are not ready for college-level science and math.

Bringing arts into education may help.

“Strong exposure to the arts has been able to provide a level of engagement beyond what you get in the absence of it,” Allina says. “So in schools where kids aren’t reading, they’re cutting art. And what we’re saying is, ‘No-no-no, put in more art. Bring them in that way.’”

Maeda has described Allina as “the architect of all of the STEAM work in the country.” 

A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts report, “The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth: Four Longitudinal Studies,” found a powerful correlation between students’ arts exposure and their academic success. Students who had arts-rich experiences in school not only had higher GPAs—they were more likely to complete a calculus course, graduate, and aspire to college.

As STEAM has gathered momentum, it is getting a closer, more critical look, as policymakers and others seek to find out exactly how and when integration of the arts enhances STEM learning and innovation outcomes. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, in a 2013 review of recent empirical research, found some evidence for the impact of arts education on skills outside of the arts—such as that students who study the visual arts are stronger in geometrical reasoning, and that dance instruction improves visual-spatial skills.

But pursuing art for pleasure may be promising enough. In 2008, researchers found that the more successful a scientist was, the more likely he or she was to engage in the arts. Nobel laureates were the most likely to engage in arts and crafts avocations, followed by Royal Society and National Academy of Sciences members, both of which serve as scientific advisors to their governments. Royal Society and National Academy members were more likely to participate in the arts than Sigma Xi members, which represented scientists in general, and the U.S. public.

Allina sees the throughline of creativity in being successful in art, science, policy work, and nearly everything else. “Having a personal experience as a policy person and as an artist is a gift to be able to tie the parts of life together. And I really like the idea of encouraging Bennington grads particularly... that creatives have all opportunities open to them, and that they shouldn’t limit their thinking to known or expected career paths.”

Follow STEAM initiatives by visiting this link at RISD. http://map.stemtosteam.org/