Roundtable: The impact of combining arts and science, with DFRobot

STEAM is gaining ever more traction within education. But what are the benefits of arts/science cross-fertilisation, and is UK education going in the right direction? Steve Wright quizzes Ricky Ye

The first in our series on STEAM, we speak to Ricky Ye, CEO at DFRobot.

Q. What benefits can an arts education provide for more technical career paths?

An arts education helps to build communication, innovation and creativity – all essential factors in scientific or technological breakthroughs. 

Q. How key a skill will creativity be in future job markets?

The ability to think creatively will only become more important in future, whatever industry a student enters after completing their studies. Emerging technologies such as 5G, AI, the Internet of Things and unmanned vehicles are likely to have a huge impact on our lives and on job markets. Quick responses to rapid changes, the ability to collaborate effectively, and creative problem-solving are all skills that will enhance competitiveness and increase employment opportunities in growth markets.

Q. And how much of the onus is on the arts, specifically, to nurture this creativity?

We’ve come a long way since Ken Robinson’s famous 2006 TEDtalk, ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ (the most watched TEDtalk of all time): not necessarily in terms of curricula, more in our attitudes towards creativity. 

For a lot of the schools that we work with, creativity is a skill that is just as important in STEM subjects as it is in the arts. Coding, for example, may be seen as a purely technical skill, but if we think about creating a programme, it starts with creativity and, very often, ends with it too as the programmer seeks solutions to any glitches before creating the final version. Ultimately, if we want to foster innovation in the STEM subjects, creativity is crucial. How can you create something new if you can’t use your creative brain to imagine it first? 

Q. What about the benefits in the opposite direction: how can technical subjects such as maths and physics help inform the arts?

Many people see programming as being purely computational, but it often reflects the writing process. Or take the fact that computational tasks can add structure to creativity, giving people a framework to work within. Additionally, technical subjects like computing and robotics regularly rely on problem-solving skills that often help foster creativity among students. 

New technology can also be a great inspiration for artists – they have been using different media for their work for a very long time. Think of Andy Warhol’s work and the way he explored the bridge between art and advertising. Some of the teachers we work with also talk about how encouraging it can be for students if their work is also put to use at solving real-life problems.

Q. How are educators and innovators embracing a mix of science and art in order to develop soft skills such as empathy and ethics?

A lot of the schools we work with use robots as a storytelling tool, getting pupils to create a background for the robot or brainstorming jobs that the robot could do, before presenting their ideas to the class. Children are often fascinated by robots: we frequently ascribe emotions to inanimate objects when we’re young and robots that respond, or can be ‘taught’, often blur the lines between what’s real and alive and what isn’t. They can also be a great tool for helping to develop empathy skills, or for teaching children ethical concepts. This, of course, has benefits in both directions: we need more ethics and empathy in technological innovation too. 

Q. What more can schools and universities do to maximise this cross-fertilisation between the arts and the sciences? And what more can governments and tech companies do to help here?

Schools don’t necessarily want to be told what to teach and how to teach it. However, if we could encourage more collaboration between higher education and schools, that would certainly benefit both schools and universities.  

As for tech companies like DFRobot, it’s vital for us to enjoy better communication with teachers and parents, to find out their real-world needs, provide more effective learning resources, and to seek more collaboration in order to help create a better environment for STEM/STEAM education.

Q. What initiatives (e.g. the BBC micro:bit) have gained traction so far in the movement towards arts and science integration?

Aside from products such as robots or the micro:bit, some of the best resources out there are teachers’ own ideas. The STEAM initiative itself started in one particular school – the Rhode Island School of Design, USA – and teachers are great at sharing lesson plans and ideas. The Boson Starter Kit, which is one of our most successful products, works with micro:bit, and the creativity and scaleability that results from this integration have been amazing. Projects like this, with the potential for plenty of creativity and scaleability to a scale that they can relate to, really resonate with kids – and that increased engagement has great benefits for educational attainment.

Q. Can you give examples of where coding and other technology could be worked into arts and humanities subjects?

Coding can be used across pretty much any subject. Children can use coding games and languages such as Scratch and Python to create geometric pieces of art, bringing maths and art into computer science, or vice versa. They can create sound from code and make music, or use block-based coding language to make a programme that depicts a scene from history. 

Further reading