Tess Gallacher: Full Steam ahead - why it's time to bring the arts into Stem fields

Writer Tess Gallacher says it's time to ditch stereotypes about the arts and realise the contribution the sector can make in traditional Stem fields in the modern technological age

IN an age where Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) increasingly dominates the way we live our lives, Scotland’s young people lack the skills to occupy their own future. 

A quarter of all digital technology vacancies in Scotland are left unfilled due to candidates lacking the appropriate qualifications, and IET suggests that "two thirds (67 per cent) of Scottish engineering businesses are worried that the education system will struggle to keep up with the skills required in today’s technological world".

Reasons for young people lacking Stem skills in the information age are many and varied. Education systems struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of developing technologies, and racism and sexism in Stem fields alienate great swathes of the potential workforce. 

A quarter of all digital technology vacancies in Scotland are left unfilled due to candidates lacking the appropriate qualifications.

On top of that, the long-held convention that arts and sciences are separate disciplines lacks appeal to the UK workforce, 63 per cent of whom are unsatisfied with the lack of creative freedom in their careers.

Developments in Stem are paving the way towards a science-fiction future, where self-driving cars drive along our streets and space tourism is an imminent reality. It’s ironic, then, that the Stem skills shortage is caused in large part by two of the oldest problems in the book: lack of diversity and resistance to change. 

However, one new approach to Stem education could be about to address both issues simultaneously. Steam (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) aims to incorporate creative skills into traditional science education, creating a truly interdisciplinary field of study with the capacity to appeal to a much wider audience.

Incorporating arts subjects into Stem is not as radical a notion as it may first appear. Various aspects of visual art from perspective to hanging involve basic maths, and the 'golden ratio' has been used extensively by artists striving to recreate the elegance of nature. 

M.C. Escher’s graphic art explores the principles of geometry, while the Doctrine of the Affections is a type of Baroque-era 'science' investigating how different musical notes are capable of affecting an audience’s emotional state.

Education systems struggle to keep up with the rapid pace of developing technologies, and racism and sexism in Stem fields alienate great swathes of the potential workforce. 

Recent research from Michigan State University also shows that this relationship between arts and Stem is reciprocal. By surveying scientists on common pastimes and hobbies, they found that "members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society - elite societies of scientists, membership in which is based on professional accomplishments and discoveries - are 1.7 and 1.9 times more likely to have an artistic or crafty hobby than the average scientist is. 

"And Nobel Prize-winning scientists are 2.85 times more likely than the average scientist to have an artistic or crafty hobby."

Music, architecture, film, literature, television and visual art have all influenced and been influenced in turn by Stem innovation. Early theories about the structure of the earth’s core inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, while Robert H. Goddard built the first liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926 after reading H.G. Wells’ novel War of the Worlds. 

In the 1960s, Nasa even recruited artists to design space shuttles, allowing engineers to conceptualise how ideas, like early satellites and re-usable spacecraft, might actually look following construction.

The incorporation of Steam into the education system remains in its infancy, and critics theorise that the quality of Stem education could be compromised by including arts: disadvantaging confident students who would benefit from more challenging and in-depth exploration of scientific concepts. 

On top of that, the long-held convention that arts and sciences are separate disciplines lacks appeal to the UK workforce, 63 per cent of whom are unsatisfied with the lack of creative freedom in their careers.

Rhode Island School of Design has developed plans for an entire Steam curriculum, but generally speaking, decisions over whether and to what degree arts should be incorporated into science classes are left to individual teachers.

Criticism is entirely appropriate when discussing any major overhaul of an education system. However, the notion that sciences could be "diluted" by the inclusion of "less challenging" arts subjects actually feeds into one of the Stem skills shortage’s biggest problems: sexism. 

Research has shown that stereotypically "feminine" disciplines, like the arts, are undervalued and underpaid. Biology, historically favoured by female students, is often referred to as a "softer" science than male-dominated physics or chemistry - and the idea that areas of Stem study or interest which tend to attract women are not "real science" is centuries old.

In their medical history tome Witches, Midwives and Nurses: a History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English explore how male medieval doctors defined the discipline of medical science while persecuting women healers for being witches. 

Developments in Stem are paving the way towards a science-fiction future, where self-driving cars drive along our streets and space tourism is an imminent reality.

Despite the deliberate suppression of their methods, "it was witches who developed an extensive understanding of bones and muscles, herbs and drugs, while physicians were still deriving their prognoses from astrology and alchemists were trying to turn lead into gold."

A modern equivalent can be seen in the "gamergate" controversy. Statistics revealing that the stereotypically male pastime of playing computer games is actually dominated by women were met with claims that the study’s results were flawed, as the titles women tended to favour were not "real" games. 

A distinction was drawn between the emerging genre of smartphone games like puzzle-based Candy Crush Saga and the "shoot-em-up" style of male-favoured titles such as Call of Duty. 

Reasons included contentions that first-person shooter games are more challenging or more "traditional" - despite Candy Crush’s obvious similarity to original gaming classic, Tetris.

We live in a world where brain implants allow quadriplegics to move; where computers can write poetry and prosthetic limbs can "feel", with the sensitivity of human fingertips. 

It’s ironic, then, that the Stem skills shortage is caused in large part by two of the oldest problems in the book: lack of diversity and resistance to change. 

Scientific developments are projecting us towards a seemingly boundless technological future, yet the social and cultural capabilities of Stem are dictated by our own very human limitations. 

We often tend to think of Stem as being the realm of unbiased, rational thought, but a glance into the past shows that scientific innovation is inextricably linked to human social and political history. 

Nazi Germany used the science of eugenics to justify racism, while the development of gynaecological medicine is littered with anecdotes of physical disfigurement and sexual abuse.

"For some reason, we think that poetry is this thing you do on the side, once you get your math done or your science done. Same thing with writing or any of the things we call 'the arts' – there’s this idea that they’re just an elective, they’re just decoration, and they have nothing to do with our survival, or why we can stand to be here. 

"That’s the reason I’ve made it to 53 – because of finding these things that poetry or painting contain." - Lynda Barry

Steam (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths) aims to incorporate creative skills into traditional science education, creating a truly interdisciplinary field of study with the capacity to appeal to a much wider audience.

The limits of Stem are the limits of the human imagination: it evolves (and devolves) with us. Science can tell us how to do things, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us why we should - or should not. 

We can understand that by appreciating the historical repercussions of an experiment like atomic testing, or the social significance of the theft and exploitation of Henrietta Lacks’ cervical cells. 

Broadening the appeal of Stem by incorporating arts isn’t just about solving a skills shortage- it’s about reflecting the diverse society we live in. It’s about creating a future that includes all of us. 

Stem may be on the verge of allowing us to live forever, but Steam gives us something to live for. I think there’s something poetic in that.

Picture courtesy of Ania Mendrek

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