Parts and crafts

Addressing the growing STEAM movement, and how traditionally ‘serious’ endeavours such as coding and engineering are embracing their creative side

By Charley Rogers

In the earliest days of formal education, when the philosophers known as Sophists were the teachers of Ancient Greece circa the fifth and fourth centuries BC, although some of the most popular focuses were philosophy and rhetoric, the range of subjects taught by Sophists ran from music through to mathematics and logic. In fact, many famous Ancient Greek thinkers were multi-disciplinarians, including Aristotle, who was both a philosopher and a scientist. The idea that ‘scientific’ pursuits such as biology, mathematics, and logic would be completely separate from the more ‘artistic’ endeavours of philosophy, art, and music was not considered to be important at all. 

Unfortunately, at some point in the development of education in the West, this multidisciplinary approach was done away with. Subjects were suddenly separated out into arts, humanities, and sciences, and often judged in accordance with which category they belonged to. Professor Sugata Mitra at Newcastle University has suggested that our current system is a reflection of the modern education system as we know it, having been devised to train future employees to support the industrial revolution, and that as such education models, as well as the subjects that were considered most important, were geared towards this goal.

A new revolution

However, there is now a counter-movement that is taking the education space by storm. Although not particularly new, the concept of STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts, maths) has taken flight in the last few years. From education experts such as Sir Ken Robinson back in 2006, to model Karlie Kloss just last month, the spectrum of people now advocating for the STEAM movement is astonishing. 

And it’s not just considering arts as of equal importance to STEM that is at the heart of the movement. For many educators, the idea that there is an inherent creativity to STEM-related pursuits such as coding and engineering, and that in turn, these subjects can be used to foster creativity in the classroom, is an essential element for STEAM supporters. 

One such supporter is Nick Corston, co-founder and CEO of STEAM Co., a social enterprise that, amongst other things, organises inspirational ‘STEAM Days’ to encourage school-age students to embrace the creative side of education. Speaking to Nick about his vision for STEAM Co., he said: “At the end of the day it’s all about using creativity to engage young people, and to connect broader society. I mean, the CBI [Confederation of British Industry] has called British schools ‘exam factories’ on record, so we’ve got to connect the education system with wider society.” 

More than just a tick in a box

The idea that education is far more than just passing exams and getting a job, and is, in fact, an important pursuit for all areas of life – including social and personal development – is one that is central to those that are pushing the STEAM movement forward. 

A focus on the connection to young people and their communities is shared by Joe Nash, who is Student Programme Manager at coding company GitHub. Believing that creativity has “an incredibly important place in coding,” Nash went on to tell me that through the ever more accessible coding tools such as GitHub, “we’re seeing a new wave of creatives set free not just from restrictions of their medium, but from socioeconomic burdens.” 

Opening up the channels of creativity that run through STEM subjects is something that is at the core of the STEAM movement. Not only are students being encouraged to consider arts and sciences on an equal level, but to understand how the two are not as far apart as we might think. David Lakin, Head of Education (5–19) at the IET, explained that engineering is an inherently creative pursuit: “Engineers have to be good at solving problems and thinking up new and innovative solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges,” he said. “They need to be able to use their knowledge of science and maths creatively, and that’s what makes engineering careers very exciting.” 

So if creativity and STEM subjects are so important to one another, why have they been separated in the curriculum for so long? One suggestion, put forward by Paul Harrington, Managing Director of Technology Supplies and Timstar, is that arts subjects and STEM subjects have a very different system of evaluation: “The challenge is recognising that creativity is inherently messy and difficult to ‘mark’. When teaching a technical subject, facts and technical information are an easy measure to test whether a student has an understanding of the subject matter, however, introducing ‘creativity’ brings challenges,” he said. 

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“In Ancient Greece, the idea that ‘scientific’ pursuits such as biology, mathematics, and logic would be completely separate from the more ‘artistic’ endeavours of philosophy, art, and music was not considered to be important at all.” 

Fail again, fail better

Paul went on to address the elephant in the classroom: failure. Critics of our current education system often address the tendency of schools to breed a fear of failure through the heavy focus on exams and grades, and that oftentimes, the most successful entrepreneurs, athletes, scientists and writers are those that can withstand repeated failure and keep on trying. “It is the reluctance to embrace failure that prevents a lot of creativity in the classroom,” said Paul. “This is damaging in the long term, as students play it safe and a homogenised set of designs continue to be produced. It is often in the mess of failure that we find the genesis of some of the biggest entrepreneurial developments.” 

It seems that many STEAM supporters are angling for similar changes: more creativity in teaching models, an embracing of constructive failure, and an acknowledgement of the strong link between the arts and STEM. So what can educators do to facilitate these? David Lakin at the IET thinks that addressing real-world problems is a good start: “Teachers can challenge their students to think about current real-world problems and how they would use new and creative ways of solving them,” he said. 

Asking Joe Nash at GitHub about ways in which to encourage creativity across STEM subjects, and specifically in coding, he suggested that although it’s true that creativity is important to coding, coding is also an incredibly useful tool in fostering creativity: “Coding enables you to express creativity in ways that haven’t been possible in any other medium or with any other tool,” he said. “If you can imagine it, you can build it. Whether that be an epic adventure that you craft into a video game, or a piece of art that you realise through digital tools, or your dream business or app that you are able to create and base a future on.” 

Never too late

But what if students realise their interest in coding later on, after they have already pursued the arts route through school? Joe says this isn’t a problem: “Some of the best developers I know come from humanities fields. Just treat code like you would any other new medium. Artists experiment with new mediums all the time, and there are many coding platforms made to be used by artists,” he said. There are now also specific university courses to combine arts and coding, such as at Goldsmiths College in London, who have “a fantastic suite of creative coding courses.” Joe went on to explain: “As a student in these schools, it’s easy to take a module in coding here or there, that still aligns with a student’s broader curriculum.” 

The ethos of the STEAM movement then, is that there is absolutely no need to separate arts and STEM, and that it can even be detrimental to learning. Creativity is not only important in numerous ways as part of STEM, but these subjects can, in fact, be great ways to teach students to develop this creativity, through real-world problem-solving, and trial-and-error experiments. And if a student has explored the arts and later wants to transition into a career in tech, it can be done. Ultimately, says Paul Harrington at Technology Supplies, “It’s never too late to learn something new,” and there are innumerable opportunities in STEAM. 

As Nick Corston so succinctly said: “We need to educate people to be creative in their lives, in their work, and in their education.” This is what STEAM is all about. 

 

Four top tips for embracing creativity in the classroom, from David Lakin at the IET:
 – Try to give pupils opportunities to work on open-ended problems. Remember there can be many different solutions to any problem 
 – Encourage experimentation and allow them to see failure as a step on the road to refining their solution
 – Use new technology and advances in STEM to get students thinking
 – Use real-life role models from industry to inspire them and show them how STEM subjects are applied to the real world

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