Do You Have STEAM?

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STEAM womanWhen it comes to success in the business world, particularly for results that are driven by individuals and teams, we’ve seen that diversity offers an innovative edge. The same holds true for whole industries: where more than one field intersect, we’re more likely to see growth and creative progress. It is undeniable that an emphasis on STEM education is demanded with both hands; a reality bolstered by the demand for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) backgrounds in the job market in particular. The exponential growth of technology in nearly every facet of our society will continue to demand these backgrounds to accommodate continued growth, but in order to generate a sustainable response to technology-driven demands, it is also worthwhile to turn our attention to the arts and the “creative class” for a fresh application of skills that aid the technical perspective immensely. Rather than focusing solely on ‘STEM,’ a more holistic approach that incorporates the arts, commonly referred to as ‘STEAM,’ will offer up more viable solutions in the long-term.

The value of arts in the STEM industry

One of the primary value-adds that an arts background offers is creative vision. To point to a near-cliché example, we likely wouldn’t have seen such success come from Apple if it weren’t for Steve Jobs’ creative faculty. Jobs, when introducing the iPad 2, said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

Another commonly overlooked benefit that the arts adds to a STEM background is effective communication and presentation. Many engineers and scientists are not trained to communicate the technical work that they do to others who cannot access the technical jargon. Without effective communication that reaches a broad population, much of the work that STEM professionals achieve is lost on others. Communication and presentation are critical to developing products, supporting technical projects, and conveying the value of ideas rooted in technology or science.

Why has ‘STEAM’ been overlooked?

STEAM image 1Arguably, the demand for technology backgrounds has been so high that it seems only natural for industry commentators to draw attention to fulfilling these roles in the most basic sense. There’s no denying that we need and will continue to need talented software engineers, for example. The benefits of the arts when paired with STEM are often less obvious, particularly in the short-term. One risk associated with forgetting the arts and creative skill sets is that much of our work in tech-based industries especially will lose relevancy and power in terms of how it is developed creatively to suit the real needs and lifestyles of individuals.

Although to some it may seem like a stretch, arts and science are often reliant on one another to achieve success – and it isn’t just STEM that needs the arts in today’s job market. Careers that are commonly perceived as arts-based such as animation, fashion design, and painting all require STEM-related skill sets.

Continuing the conversation

In an AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy last year, Bill O’Brien, senior advisor for program innovation at the National Endowment for the Arts said, “The need to better prepare our youth for a competitive workforce of tomorrow by improving STEM learning has been embraced for some time, but we’re just starting to appreciate how critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and imagination are also important work skills for the 21st century. We may need to take a closer look at how STEM, arts, and humanities learning may provide us with a more holistic understanding of how these skills can develop and then integrate in the work place.”

It’s still early in the conversation, and O’Brien’s words continue to hold true.

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Claire Topalian is a writer, non-profit Communications professional, and advocate for diversity in business. She currently leads Communications and the Startup Women initiative at UP Global, an international non-profit that builds startup communities through educational programs and events. You can follow her on Twitter @clairetopalian.

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