Roundtable: The impact of combining arts and science, with KUBO Robotics

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 Rikke Berggreen Paaskese

The second in our series on STEAM, we speak to Rikke Berggreen Paaskese, educational curriculum manager at KUBO Robotics. 

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

A grounding in the arts can help to provide more technical and scientific careers with better interdisciplinary, creative and innovative approaches to technology. This can encompass everything from light installations, aesthetic decoration and interaction to design of products and environments that influence our surroundings and wellbeing. 

The arts also play a very important role when it comes to the field of robotics, including social robotics and human-robot interaction. For example, designers can help make technology better suit its surroundings and fit within specific environments; psychologists and sociologists can help engineers in the creation of responsible designs so that social robots don’t reflect or provoke an uncanny effect on those not used to this kind of technology; and philosophers can help debate the consequences, influences and outcomes of human-machine interaction. These sorts of views can help us to reflect on, say, the intentions behind a given technological product development, or what socio-cultural implications might ensue when robots are developed to act as caretakers, teachers or assistants.

Such influences on everyday life will change patterns of social interaction and will cause changes in our values system. In summary, the humanities and the arts should play a major part in the thought processes of scientists and engineers, when developing technology for the betterment of human wellbeing and social welfare.

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

Creativity is hugely vital for future job markets. 

As machines and automation become part of our everyday lives, we need to be able to develop our creative skills and abilities to do what automation and robots cannot help us with. This includes social belonging and values, moral intelligence, creativity and coming up with new ideas, nursing specifically human capacities such as empathy, and making ethical decisions. 

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

There is quite a lot of onus on the arts to nurture creativity, and rightly so as the arts field is typically more aligned to these types of characteristics. It is this creative nerve, attention and development which must be reflected in our contemporary society. In terms of social responsibility, sustainability and wellbeing, the arts also play a significant role. 

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

Engineers can inform the arts in many ways. 

Developing, improving and refining sustainable product development and improving social responsibility relies on a complex mix of the two disciplines, with each contributing to and depending on the other. 

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

When using technology in the classroom, educators can ask a series of relevant questions when it comes to ethics. For example, what would be the human benefits of a world surrounded by automation? Are technologies serving the betterment of human wellbeing, or are they serving other purposes – purposes that might have (too) big consequences? Philosophy, critical thinking and asking children questions that make them think about technology will all help them to better reflect on the wider issues at stake in our technological revolution.

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 and universities can acknowledge, promote and make room for interdisciplinary approaches and cross-curricular projects, and encourage the arts, technology and education to collaborate on projects. Governments can encourage such cooperation by ensuring more flexible structures and transparency in the field. Tech companies and universities can also work together on projects – for instance, helping students to develop pilot projects in partnership with tech firms. The education industry can also invite tech firms to deliver presentations and organise events to explain and demonstrate what the industry needs from a long-term – and sustainable – perspective. 

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

Alongside the BBC micro:bit, there are lots of resources available to schools that combine the arts and science, to help children better understand the connections between what they’re learning in class and how it can be applied to everyday practice, as well as bringing a more creative and engaging environment to their learning. 

For example, while a teacher can teach coding using a computer screen or a robot, it is more inspirational to encourage children to get hands-on, and to set real-world challenges for which they must find solutions. 

Taking this one step further and looking at the higher education sector, there have also been initiatives coming from manufacturers who have co-operated with universities, as well as initiatives from artists that demonstrate – and play with – the influence of technology on the human body. Elsewhere, universities have facilitated research between different disciplines, around the historical and contemporary changes produced by technology. 

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

There are plenty of ways in which coding and robotics can be used in a cross-curricular sense, in order to give children a more collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to learning. For example, at KUBO we are strong believers in using storytelling to teach students how to control technology, to help them develop a sense of agency and ownership of the content as they decide where, how and why a robot should be coded to act out a certain behaviour, or to solve a specific task.

This works across other subjects too, such as geography (they get to know one or more continents of the world and their associated culture and characteristics), history (they learn significant cultural and historical features that are specific to each continent), literacy (they can read a story from a given country and use a robot to play a role in that story), language (let students investigate what language the local citizens speak in the city) and maths (let students investigate the size of the country using a scale, and research its population). 

Again, looking ahead, scientific literature can help us to discuss themes and possible scenarios for the future. A high-tech music installation, combined with light and pictures, can help promote the healing process, for instance, in a hospital setting. Similarly, history can help us to understand contemporary developments, to promote an understanding of the past as well as a reflection on where we might be heading. 

Ultimately, though, as educators we must keep in mind what we do best – to educate our younger generations and to give them the best possible tools to navigate, to influence and to engage the best possible behaviours in their everyday life and surroundings, adding human value to our contemporary society. 

Further reading