The Long View


Let’s STEAM past STEM

STEM — Many of us have probably heard this acronym in advertisements and discussions related to building a prosperous economic region. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, and these four areas of study and skill are important. I would, however, like to make the case for going beyond this approach.

First and foremost I will state again that these areas of study and skill are important, but this focused cluster is not unique. Communities all over the country have taken up the mantle of STEM as the key to their success. We can do more. My suggestion is that we work differently to lay the groundwork for entrepreneurs, big and small. We can do this by expanding our basic expectations and approach re-making our community with a different model, one going a step beyond what everyone else is doing.

There is a movement throughout America to turn STEM into STEAM by adding the arts to the acronym and the community development strategy. I am in favor of that, but I think that a simplistic approach in this area could also leave us short.

Why should a case be made for adding yet another realm of focused studies and skills to the acronym? First, most of the great scientists and mathematicians of the last millennia or two were also great thinkers versed in the humanities and arts. Why? Because the best ways to achieve goals are informed by all areas of thought. Leonardo DaVinci was not only a great artist, but also a great thinker whose innovation spurred many of the great discoveries of our past 100 years. Flight, technology and the artificial heart all benefited from his work, and in each case the key to success was a combination of artistic observation and scientific problem-solving. The process of creating blood flow through an artificial pump was inspired by his observation of whirlpools in nature and the natural geometry that influenced his art. These observations were way ahead of their time and only recently confirmed as science caught up, but the combination of perspectives allowed Leonardo to be light years ahead of the curve.   Recently the filmmakers of PIXAR talked about the combination of art and science, stating, “The art inspired the technology and the technology informed the art; both were essential for our success.”

Linking art and science leads me to my point. If we want to go beyond just achieving good jobs and become a region that is a destination for thinkers, entrepreneurs and businesses, we need to step up our game and go beyond STEM. We need to go beyond STEAM. We need to create an environment that brings together an exceptional appreciation and practical knowledge of science, math, engineering, art, communication, literature, politics, ethics and so much more. We need to be bigger than the acronyms.

The combination of exceptional people with exceptional ideas and creativity is the launching pad for a region super-heated for success.

The recent findings of the Knight Soul of the Community research crystallize this line of thinking. The overwhelming observation is people want to come to a place and stay in a place that allows them to interact socially and intellectually, a place where people value the aesthetic, with diversity and sense of optimism.

Creative, innovative people come to areas where they can be successful and the infrastructure is ready for them. They also come where other creative, innovative people are.  Let’s become a region that doesn’t just look at what others have done to become successful economic regions, let’s learn from them but take the challenge to become a leader in that area. We have done it before, and I am confident we can do it again.

Jim Sparrow

Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.

Posted: Wed, 08/03/2011 - 8:02 am
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:15 pm