Encouraging the artistic side of science and technology

Gina Cooke, Contemporary Science Programme Producer at MakeFest Manchester, talks creativity in STEM

I don’t think there’s a science teacher in the world who wouldn’t be thrilled to have a Leonardo Da Vinci or a Galileo in their classroom. Yet these great thinkers didn’t limit themselves to one subject – they were polymaths who were as forward-thinking in art as they were in engineering, who painted and philosophised as well as inventing. So when did we lose the A from STEAM? Or – the really big question – did we ever lose it  at all?

Throughout history people have invented, designed, constructed, changed and recreated objects that connect to their lives. MakeFest, produced by the Museum of Science and Industry, embodies that ethos for a modern audience. And as we currently run the only making festival in the Science Museum Group, and given our incredible database of ingenious makers, we’re really in a position to lead the way. 

As part of the team that produces MakeFest, I believe that STEM subjects are intrinsically artistic. From sketching ideas to building prototypes, creativity is a major component. This is the premise that informs hundreds of amazing maker events across the world, not just here in Manchester. It isn’t a revolutionary practice – we just need to get better at communicating it, particularly to children. 

The Museum recently held a Women in STEM event, where one of the biggest obstacles flagged up was that negative opinions about science are being passed on to children by parents and peers, which then turn children – particularly girls – off pursuing STEM subjects. Educational outreach needs to encourage parents to talk positively to their children about STEM, rather than perpetuating the idea that it is ‘difficult’ or ‘not for people like them’. Whether or not they become a scientist isn’t the main purpose. We should give children the opportunity to gain scientific understanding, problem-solving skills, and the curiosity and confidence to apply them in their everyday life.

This year we are linking up with the Year of Engineering celebrations and given the synergy between engineering and making in particular, we are not only looking to grow our maker base but also to expand on our use of engineers in the programme. Engineering has historically been stereotyped as a more ‘serious’ subject, but MakeFest proves that it is creative, accessible and definitely imaginative. Our advice to others would be that sometimes this kind of partner may be unfamiliar with public engagement, so try offering training sessions or guidance on developing suitable activities. There’s a fantastic opportunity to tap into this field, highlight the real-life application of making and showcase the incredible impact it has on the world.

The more opportunities you can provide to meet inventors, makers, scientists and engineers face-to-face, the more relatable they will become, and families will think “Yeah, I could do that”. In my experience, by offering hands-on activities rather than just talks or displays, children are more likely to ask questions and become enthused. We want the makers to tell their stories and children to ask questions, so they can understand why making is important. They might pick it up as a fascinating hobby, utilise a new skill to fix something at home or even choose it as a career. 

How do we embed creativity? All makers are innovators because they are coming up with new concepts and prototyping things that might fail. That’s a very creative process, and it’s what makes an inventor. So there shouldn’t always be rules or instructions or an end goal. We should allow imagination to take hold and creative thinking to break free. It is well documented that play is vital for a child’s growth and development from a very early age. It’s the way we begin to build skills and understand the world around us: a relentless case of trial and error. We are conditioned for this type of learning and the making trend picks this back up. 

Failure is often heralded as a negative – however, that is a key part of the process of making and engineering new things. Freedom to fail should be encouraged, and creativity with scientific enquiry should be fostered. This is where your best ideas are formed! It should be celebrated when a prototype fails. It ignites curiosity, sparks further questioning and builds resilience, as well as a genuine sense of pride and excitement when a project is completed. Trial and error and reflection are key skills that making manifests. Children should be able to try new things, experiment and be challenged, all within in a safe environment and with appropriate support.

It’s really important to work with a wide range of partners in order to give children the best possible view of how they might creatively get involved in engineering and science. And spend time making sure you get the right partners – it’s their passion and creativity that fuels the children’s curiosity. There’s a whole making movement across the country, an amazing community of inspiring people, and I’d really recommend educators to see if there’s an organisation near them they can get involved with. 

As 2018 is the Year of Engineering it’s the perfect time for teachers and educators to take a fresh look at STEM subjects and see how they can take a different approach that will allow children to experience the creativity in science and engineering and realise their own potential. 

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