A call to arts: Debbie Jedwab

The fifth expert in our series exploring how best to connect STEM and the arts is Senior Lecturer in Creative Technology at Middlesex University

In your opinion, is the connection between STEM and the arts still important?

Yes, the connection is vital. The two areas are interdependent – STEM and arts subjects complement each other and we have witnessed this on many fronts. This is where the UK has been leading developments in both the sciences and the creative arts for decades.

Do you think the connection between STEM and the arts is more important in a school or university setting, or is it the same across the board?

The connection between STEM and the arts is important right from the off – if schools do not value the arts and only push for STEM through their curriculum, this can only lead to an imbalanced society. From experience, the government’s current policy of investing in STEM subjects over the arts is resulting in the demise of the growth of a healthy nation. I studied the arts but now teach in a STEM faculty and appreciate the balance of having both perspectives, which I use for my personal research and to inform my teaching. Having this balance has been very beneficial to myself and my students.

Have you seen any particular developments in the STEAM arena over the last 12 months?

Middlesex University encourages seamless interaction between arts, creative industries and science and technology. We recently completed a STEM fair at Thorpe Park and alongside computer science, natural sciences, maths, engineering and sports science subjects, we exhibited creative technology which also straddles science, technology and media – it was logical to put the two together. We have also developed an exclusive public engagement initiative, SMASHfest, which has been running for over a decade where we deliberately use the arts and creativity to inspire young people to take up interests in STEM areas. We have also tried, like many others, to do this without using the art elements, without achieving the same impact. The younger generation responds much better to playful scenarios and activities when faced with serious, underlying principles. SMASHfest goes into deprived communities to engage the entire community, not just the children, and looks to inspire them in STEM careers. The response of these communities has been phenomenal. 

“The connection between STEM and the arts is important right from the off – if schools do not value the arts and only push for STEM through their curriculum, this can only lead to an imbalanced society.” 

Is technology playing an important role in STEAM, and if so how?

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Technology is playing an important role in everything, not just STEAM. We are in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution and people will ignore technology at their peril. Already, large swathes of the population are ruling themselves out of employment by not embracing technology. Yes, there are pockets of people involved in crafts that do not employ technology, but the majority of the population will need to embrace it in order not to be left behind. Young people stand the best chance of employment growing up with new technologies.

Do you have any examples of education providers that are emphasising the connection between STEM and the arts particularly well?

Technology is relevant to the arts as much as to STEM subjects, and this trend will continue and grow. For example, at Middlesex University, at an institutional level, we value and actively promote problem-based learning. This brings opportunities to curriculum areas such as live projects, appropriate assessment tools beyond examinations and valuing high-level practical skills as much as academic skills. It gives our students a much greater advantage and prepares them better for life in the outside world. In making this a reality, the approaches in learning and in assessment that are traditionally found in the arts have been employed in STEM subjects, thus cross-fertilising the pedagogies that exist in both disciplines. One example of this is our postgraduate course in creative technology. Arts students learn coding and technical skills, computer programmers, engineers and industrial designers learn how to start with a blank piece of paper and ideate and play in order for their ideas to evolve. This postgraduate course allows students to exit with an MA or an MSc which allows them to explore all directions. It is the ideas that are important, not the category that they are in, which is problem-based learning. By the end of the course, students have learnt what their forte is for themselves without having to decide before they start.

How can education providers continue to ensure that the connection between STEM and the arts is emphasised for today’s students?

It’s important for education providers to recognise that these two subject areas are interdependent. When an institution devises their learning, teaching and assessment strategy, they ought to consider this and adopt it at an institutional level. This ensures that they contribute towards a much-needed, balanced society. It is also their role to lobby the political system to value and appreciate the vital role that both STEM and the arts play in society and how they contribute to our GDP.

Creative Technology at Middlesex University: mdx.ac.uk/courses

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