Roundtable: The impact of combining arts and science, with STEAM Co.

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 Nick Corston

The last in our series on STEAM, we speak to Nick Corston, co-founder and CEO, STEAM Co.

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

An education in one or more arts subjects will provide a variety of technical skills, such as the ability to draw, which is useful for an engineer. Others might not be directly relevant to a chosen career path, but would help develop a creative and problem-solving mindset.

Personally, I’m excited by art in its very broadest definition: the development of passion and skills that would make for the sort of interesting people that any company would want to employ and anyone would want to work with.

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

Out of 10? How about a creative, ‘hire me’ answer like 11? Given that robots and AI are going to take away many of our jobs – certainly the most low-value and repetitive, task-based jobs – there will be a mad scrap for any jobs that are left. Creative people with the skills to collaborate, problem-solve and think critically will stand out from the crowd and rise to the top. Where else would anyone want to be?

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

Creative subjects such as ‘the arts’ will be key to nurturing the open and flexible mindsets underlying these critical skills, but I’m interested in a broader definition of the word ‘art’. One of the world’s leading strategists, Seth Godin, defined art as “what we call it when what we do might connect us”. This relates to subjects and activities that we are passionate about, that create connections as we move from the industrial economy to a ‘connection’ economy, powered by the killer combination of creativity, tech and people, as evidenced by hugely successful products and services like Uber, Airbnb and eBay.

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

There are many creatives and artists whose work would have been nigh-on impossible without a fundamental grasp of science and maths. Look, for example, at the architectural creations of the late Zaha Hadid. She would have been able to call on specialists, but would also have relied on her own solid foundation of knowledge of mathematics, geometry, physics, etc. Or take the DevArt work showcased by Google, which brings together complex coding and tech solutions to deliver inspiring artworks.

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

One of the best ways of developing empathy and ethics is via storytelling and theatre, two of the oldest art forms. And these art forms certainly aren’t going out of fashion, as witness the never-ending hunger for drama on the plethora of TV and streaming services to which we now have access. Edtech presents many opportunities for bringing such opportunities and experiences into the classroom, including such high-tech solutions as VR headsets, or now>press>play and their wireless headset systems.

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?

Universities should start to think and act outside their subject silos. They could look to best practice such as the IDE (Industrial Design Engineering) degree course, run jointly by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, who themselves foster collaboration between faculties. 

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

Many coding initiatives, such as Code Club, place great emphasis on creativity and visual design, such as the graphical aspects of games development, which itself is the perfect example of the integration of tech and visual skills and creativity.

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

Technology is now a part of everything and every subject, whether it be the analysis and presentation of data sets or the creation of teaching support materials. STEM and STEAM are both just acronyms: what makes the difference is creativity, and that is applicable to both. And key to all our futures.

Further reading