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 workable solutions.
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.