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unicorn mosaic

This unicorn mosaic is composed of colored bacterial “paintings” created by South by Southwest attendees in 2013.

Karen Ingram

Full STEAM ahead

The first time I used the term “STEM education” in a talk, I screwed it up.

“It’s so important to promote STEM education,” I implored the audience, before making the mistake of trying to explain the acronym. “STEM, of course, stands for science, technology, engineering, and—”

And then I realized I didn’t know whether “M” was math or medicine.

“—medicine,” I said.

“Math,” the audience said.

“Damn it,” I said.

Chances are you’ve heard the STEM acronym. It frequently comes in the context of a lament, as in, “Why aren’t kids interested in STEM?” or “Why is there no diversity in STEM?” or “Seriously, is there any way to convince kids not to run screaming in the opposite direction when we try to teach STEM?”

Then, at some point, STEM became STEAM. Do you remember that happening? I don’t. I just know that one day we were all talking about STEM, and the next day we were using STEM and STEAM interchangeably, perfectly willing to accept “A” as part of the acronym, whatever it might stand for.

When I eventually learned which scientific subdiscipline the “A” in STEAM represents (Astronomy? Avionics? Actuarial … ness?), I was surprised to find that it’s none of these. It stands for arts.

That initially struck me as a little odd. Why art in particular? Why not, say, business or history? (Fun fact: It turns out that the term “STEAM” was invented at the Rhode Island School of Design to emphasize the role of art and design in science.)

Of course I believe that art is important; this very column could be classified as an amalgam of science and artistic expression, if the classifier generously ignores its occasional tendency toward gratuitous obscenity. But when I first started thinking about how STEM became STEAM, it seemed like it might be appropriating and possibly diluting our cause. It felt like Groucho, Harpo, and Chico Marx suddenly asking us to accept Zeppo as an integral part of the group. Even the changed acronym itself sounded like something literally grounded had given way to something so physically insubstantial that it’s literally vapid.

You can probably think of STEAM-related projects you’ve heard of: transgenic rabbits that glow, bacterial colonies in the shape of van Gogh paintings. Just today, AAAS (full disclosure: you’re looking at their website right now) announced the winners of its annual “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest.

Projects like these are fun, but they can feel more like niche novelties than crucial to scientific progress. Okay, cool, you grafted an ear onto your arm. That probably makes a point about the malleability of physical identity, or the surprising availability of ears, or something. But how does it advance science?

It’s not that I don’t care about art. It’s just that I really want to know, especially if “A” is going to share our acronym, how art and science can truly help each other.

To find out why “A” deserves to be at the center of the acronym, I realized I needed the perspective of those most deeply immersed in STEAM. No, not crawfish. I needed to talk to real science artists.

First, I contacted Dorothy Semenow. As far as STEM goes, she’s the stemmiest: Semenow holds two science Ph.D.s, the first in chemistry with a biology minor and the second in psychology. The former was particularly notable because, as a woman in 1955, she needed special permission from the California Institute of Technology to study science at the doctoral level there.

Semenow, now age 86, has shifted her focus to STEAM, in the form of a board game called DNA Ahead. That bit of news may seem to some like an anticlimax, a frivolous cap to an illustrious science career. But for Semenow, the game isn’t just playing with science. It “aims to guide artists to not just spin off from science concepts,” she told me, “but to express specific concepts in ways that communicate them.”

And therein, I think, lies the value of STEAM. Scientists sometimes need help communicating—say, for example, when we stand in front of a crowd and can’t remember what “M” stands for. Art, in its varied forms, can bridge the gap between scientists and those we’d really like to understand us.

“Art is a great translator,” agrees STEAM proponent Karen Ingram in an email. Unlike Semenow, Ingram comes at STEAM from the “A” side. She’s an artist and designer who became interested in projects like Picture This, in which students genetically engineer bacteria to produce pigment in response to light; the students can then create pictures by growing the bacteria on agar plates with shadows in the proper places. These days, Ingram’s endeavors include co-organizing BioHTP, or Biohack the Planet, a conference in which participants discuss how to literally make life imitate art.

These are awesome ways to illustrate what science can do. But reading about a project in which a biohacker created 3D portraits based on genomic DNA extracted from wads of discarded chewing gum, I just couldn’t shake the question that science often insists we ask: Is it useful?

Because art is a many-faceted discipline, I also contacted Amanda Whitehead and Shaila Kotadia, co-founders of STEM Dance-ology, a group that helps scientists express their research through physical movement. (The very existence of a science-based dance program reminded me of a hilarious filmstrip that you should stop reading this article to watch: a dance performance, produced by the Stanford University Department of Chemistry in 1971, in which hundreds of intoxicated hippies reenact protein synthesis.)

I asked Whitehead, a professional dancer, and Kotadia, who has a Ph.D. in genetics and development, to defend art’s role in science—fully aware that, as accomplished dancers, they can probably kick my ass.

“At the heart of both disciplines of art and science are inquiry, presentation, and exchange of ideas,” they wrote in a joint email. “By that nature, opening up a larger conversation is advancing science in a necessary way, albeit differently from the traditional way one does in the lab or as a scientific expert.”

In other words, the commonalities shared by art and science—asking difficult questions and publicizing an informed interpretation of the answer—happen to be the most important aspects of each.

Ingram broadened the explanation. “Art can be a form of play, and through play, we experience empathy,” she wrote. “Art and play are great ways to learn the possibilities and limitations of a technology.”

But STEAM is about more than art trying to be science’s public relations agent. As Whitehead and Kotadia explained, there’s another reason to keep the “A” in STEAM, and it’s a good one. “Even though we can’t recall the first time we heard ‘STEAM,’” they wrote, “we do remember being excited about the term because it gave us a sense of community and belonging, that many people were thinking in a similar space about the legitimacy of combining art and STEM.”

Those who criticize the arts for horning in on our beloved acronym should, then, perhaps look at it another way. When I was in college, nearly 20 years ago, my school had an LGB group, which stood for lesbian, gay, and bisexual. Then it became LGBT, adding transgender. Now it has expanded in many places to LGBTQ, in which the “Q” is for queer and questioning, and even LGBTQIA, including intersex and asexual, and it will surely continue to grow. Far from undermining the original intent of the group, these expansions accomplish what the group has been trying to do all along: provide a community of acceptance.

Similarly, STEAM is about creative people coming together to promote and defend their underappreciated vocations. It’s about scientists and artists who love science working jointly for their common benefit. It’s about our shared passions, and frankly, it’s about time.

Because—at least until industry, illustration, information, or Italian makes a bid to join the fold—there is no “I” in STEAM.

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