Monday, 4 June 2012

Building STEAM

- borders distinguish inside from outside. if they are simple, they make it clear where we are; if they are complex, encompassing distinct pockets of space, they afford choices or the chance to change. since the ancient egyptians built their temples, one of humankind's most potent devices for achieving mystery, distance, and the setting apart of a special place has been to build layers of walls - buildings within buildings, wall around wall like the successive skins of an onion. in architecture, as in thought, simple tight boundaries are most often too confining - donlyn lyndon & charles w. moore - from chambers for a memory palace -

Adam Savage, one of the presenters of Mythbusters gave a nice talk at this year's Maker Faire about the importance of making. The vital thing, he said, was making what you had to, not what you thought you ought to, especially not what you were told to (the wider argument was intended to validate peoples' building of pop-culture artefacts, particularly movie replicas, including his building of two sets of Iron Man armour. Savage is a movie props geek, an avid and expert one, and his talk on building a perfect replica Maltese Falcon is a surprisingly canny and modest discussion of art born of obsession.

At Maker Faire, he argued that building things, and artistically building things, building with a desire as well as an interest, is an inherently good thing, bringing you closer to the world, helping you to understand how things work. Another message in the background of his talk was that building with your hands was good; he never explicitly said it, maybe didn't intend it, but it seemed like he was moving towards saying that building helped you understand your hands better, understand yourself and how you worked in relation to the materials you've chosen and the project as a whole. This discussion of how building helps you, how it forces you to learn unexpected things obviously resonates with Rushkoff's "code or be coded" mantra and the trend in the Digital Humanities toward "less yack more hack." They sit on a continuum: for both, building is good, building helps, building teaches, building takes you outside of yourself, gives something to others, and turns that knowledge inward when you need it for the next project.

Savage is an ambassador for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics teaching in the US, the STEM subjects which are often talked up at the expense of the Humanities in UK higher education budgetary concerns. Savage may be an ambassador for STEM, but he feels that something's missing. In the talk I've been discussing he says that STEM is a terrible and empty word, but STEAM, STEAM is a great word, and that "A" is where art goes. And I really liked this idea, particularly as it applies to understanding and practicing creativity, I think it has some weight.

For a start I've always liked that STEM separated science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Not confusing and conflating these areas is a rare nuance in policy at any level. STEAM keeps this and suggests a reasonably balanced view, I would argue, of human creative endeavour. No artist, scientist, engineer, mathematician, or inventor manages to avoid the other letters of the acronym (consciously or not); STEAM is the life of the 4e (embodied, embedded, extended, enacted) creating mind. Painting is born of chemistry, production, art, ratios, perspectives; engineering understands the beauty of clean lines and the beauty of elegant solutions to problems, the way loads and strengths function; etc.

My background is in English Studies, and I work in an English department, but I want to be more of a STEAM academic: I don't think that only a 1/5 interest in Art is a bad thing in understanding the creation and impact of cultural products. I want to know more about mathematics, and why no one told me that it might be worth learning about because it could be beautiful. I want to build more things, physical and digital, and encourage others to build too. And I want to teach my students about technology, about how books are technologies, and why understanding how scientists talk about the world can be a part of their studies just as interesting and worthwhile as how a play discusses the same.

A lot of my students don't need to be told this it seems; I've spent the last month marking exams and dissertations which deal with all sorts of scientific debates, and they've known their stuff. I wonder if there's something about this time of interconnectedness, of wiki access and youtube reports, of discussion forums and ebay spare parts, that calls out to a new generation of STEAM-aware students? Maybe an English department should make space to teach steAm, whilst a chemistry department teaches Steam, and the engineers discuss stEam (or stEAm, or stEAM, or...)? I don't think disciplinarity is a bad thing, but I think that not fostering a little curiosity about the overlap in the different ways we think about creation and creating might start to increasingly count against us.

But how do we teach STEAM, or our version of STEAM without sacrificing depth? Would a first year of undergrad which discussed a number of disciplinary ways of looking at things go some way toward training more savvy graduates? Could we stand the reshuffle as students, more aware of disciplinary perspectives, realised that maybe they were future scientists, or architects, or mathematicians all along?

In a time of economic uncertainty, fast-moving technological and scientific research, and increasing interdisciplinarity, all at least in part born of the ways available to us to communicate and interact, these seem the kinds of questions that need to be addressed if we place value in educating for both uncertain employment and personal development.

EDIT: A caveat - There are subjects which don't fit, or problematically fit STEAM: where do we include sports, spirituality, philosophy, law, and medicine for instance? Arguably taught sports and medicine appeal to science, technology, mathematics, even art (and maybe human "engineering"?), but spirituality and philosophy are meant to be troubling. I don't think this ruins an embrace of STEAM as a model of categories of thought which deal with our predominant modes of creativity however; as a guiding principal it's intended only as a nice reminder, not the last word.

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