Academia tends to be compartmentalized, but isolation of fields is not
effective in the real world. Science and technology alone have not, and
cannot, provide complete answers to the massive problems facing us
today. Inter-disciplinary approaches including those outside the STEM
(Science Technology Engineering Math) fields are needed to provide
STEM fields offer well-intentioned techno-fixes but they are particularly
weak at envisioning and anticipating possible societal results.
Historically, this deficit in critical analysis and reflection has led to
biomedical disasters such as the Tuskeegee Syphilis Experiment and
forced sterilizations during the American Eugenics period.
Though traditionally taught in a sphere far removed from STEM
education, art offers compelling examples of critical reflection on
science. The incorporation of art into STEM courses (known as
STEAM) adds processes for reflection and analysis of problems that
STEM alone cannot provide.
At Colgate University I had the opportunity to teach my first STEAM
class (my label, not Colgate’s), a human biology course where I
combined art with the science. This course “Human Biology: Science,
Society, and Art” incorporated art as critical lens examining multiple
facets of pressing contemporary biological issues.
Students were exposed to multi-faceted aspects of biology. Encouraged
to think about implications for their own futures, students reported the
art perspective broke down barriers isolating science from real life. This
engendered deeper personal interest in the issues studied, including
sex/gender, eugenics, assisted reproduction, and genetically modified
organisms. For final projects, student teams produced their own artwork
on these controversial topics. The powerful results indicated deep
understanding on academic and personal levels, evidence that
incorporating art history in STEAM promoted self-reflection, critical
analysis, and student engagement.
As we educate our policy makers, scientists, and other STEM workers
for the future, this type of STEAM course with its critical eye towards
envisioning possible futures and social justice will be essential to create
society we hope for.
STEM to STEAM