How do the arts connect with STEM education in our evolving digital landscape? This weekend the STEAM3 conference met in Austin to explore the subject. (STEAM is STEM plus “A” for arts. STEAM3 is “Science + Tech + Engineering + Art + Math cubed”)
Maybe “explore” is too weak a word. Half the event was an intense maker space/media demo zone, with machines cranking away, lasers shooting the ceiling, creators shouting at their creations, while analog and electronic music took turns.
We saw more maker and STEAM work at a party ably hosted by an Austin makerspace. A two-person dance and algorithm performance piece was the highlight.
The other half of the STEAM3 conference, a traditional conference presentation sequence, was energized by engaging, cutting-edge speakers and a thoughtful, involved audience. Speaker after speaker emphasized the necessity of integrating arts and creativity into STEM education. Some of them put lots of money where their mouth is, including the head of Intel’s patent division (!). Many have hybrid careers, combining music and law, art and human-computer interaction, theater performance and game design. (I spoke on digital storytelling.)
Projects inspired me and others. For example, Earsketch, a music application/ curriculum which helped get underrepresented students more involved in computing via music creation. A Florida team build simulations to help kids learn water systems and population evolution*. Two Georgian professors showed their excellent wooden beam building system, something like giant tinkertoys which users could quickly turn into furniture. They described using these beams in a curriculum to teach underserved populations about design and prototyping.
Kudos to the STEAM3 team for curating a fine event, even during horrible weather. Maggie Duval and Derek Woodgate were cordial, thoughtful, and supremely energetic hosts.
Some themes stood forth from multiple projects and presentations:
- Data collection and analytics. Nearly everyone wants to follow how learners interact with digital materials.
- The appeal of abstraction and low-res graphics to connect emotionally with users.
- General dislike for mainline schooling, both K-12 and higher education. Speakers are participants celebrated alternative education, education reform, charter schools. Several predicted current schools will decline.
- A desire to use “A” to connect STEM with underserved populations. Many projects sought to win over blacks, Latinos, and women to various parts of STEM.
Despite the excitement engendered by these inspiring, exciting, and often effective efforts, two problems surfaced for me and remain troubling.
Class A panel on alternative education initially cheered me up. Not only do I intellectually support alt.edu, but my wife and I had a fine experience homeschooling our daughter.
However, as the panel progressed it became clear that much (not all) of the alt.edu efforts were aimed at the affluent and rich. For example, one very appealing academy turned out to charge nearly $1,000 per month, per student. Another interesting project for building up mentors seemed to be based on either not paying said mentors, or compensating them on a part-time, piecework basis – not a great sign for academic labor at scale.
Other projects represented at STEAM3 involved wealthy institutions sending people into low-resourced schools – a notable use of the former’s capacity, but also a reinforcement of class differences in the school system. Which raises the question for me: what is the economic nature of STEAM? If it liberates on an individual basis, does it recapitulate our increasing inequality on a macro level?
Scale Maria Anderson and I discussed one major limitation to these fine projects: scale. Many worked at the level of a handful of people, or required significant institutional resources to address single classes. We didn’t see much evidence of STEAM efforts scaling up to the level of a school, much less a district or state. Moreover, many (not all) of the projects seemed aimed at self-starting or already interested learners, which raises the problem of connecting STEAM to other students (perhaps the majority).
In sum, STEAM3 was a powerful, challenging, fascinating experience. I haven’t been addressing STEAM very much of late, looking instead at the semi-related fields of digital storytelling and digital humanities. Perhaps I should devote more time and attention to this integration of A with STEM.
*Sadly, the stat told this team they could simulate evolution up to, but not including, primates. Sigh. #Florida