Why we need to be STEAM driven

steam_jig2 copyOver the last few years the acronym STEM has increasingly entered debates within the collective creative industries, and also at Creative Skillset.

To those in the creative industries STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) as a concept has really been carried on the back of the technologisation of media, with its convergence, divergence and ensuing disintegration of traditionally stable and demarcated roles.
Its apotheosis with regards to education policy is probably in the Browne Review or what is known as “The independent review of higher education funding and student finance” which promises to change the landscape of Higher Education, although the document that doesn’t even mention the acronym by name. (A simple keyword search shows the Browne report mentions ‘Science’ 6 times, ‘Arts’ 1 time, ‘Entrepreneur’ only once, and ‘Creative’ is totally absent)

In the proposals set out by the report Higher Education institutions will actively compete for well informed discerning students on the basis of price and teaching quality. “We want to put students at the heart of the system. Students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want” it states. However, within this free market system students are given nudges- certain priority sectors are protected from the withdrawal of the HEFCE block grant to universities.

This is because of the worry that “Students may not choose these courses because the private returns are not as high as other courses, the costs are higher and there are cheaper courses on offer, or simply because these courses are perceived as more difficult”. These priority sectors are courses in science and technology subjects, clinical medicine, nursing and other healthcare degrees, as well as some language courses.

How the funding support for these courses may eventually skew student choice or influence the universities decisions regarding putting on new courses remains to be seen. One might imagine sighs of relief within science and technology faculties, and the despair within art departments.

steam_brownereview2However, the bigger picture is that from a creative media industry perspective, the often unintentionally university faculty led and framed opposition between Art and Science has been increasingly problematic over recent years. In Computer Games for instance, what are needed are programmers who are creative and flexible, and artists who can apply their skills to strict technological constraints. The best way to teach many cutting edge skills is in a university system that can foster multidisciplinary teamworking skills, and that’s usually a university that has synergistic and co-operative faculties, rather than competing ones.

What the Browne review may end up doing is not just introducing competition between Universities, but also between faculties. A games programming BSc might receive a grant from HEFCE whereas a games art course won’t. Following this scenario, the games art course will have to charge more, possibly leading to less students, and who knows, eventual closure.
This is all conjecture at the moment, but Higher Education tutors and management alike in cash strapped Universities are trying to read the runes.
Whilst a projected increase in programmers is something that the games industry would initially welcome, this might turn to consternation if there is a drought of artistic talent to envelop such code.
At a time when we need a more integrated balance between the “calculator and the paintbrush” in the modern learner maybe we should start using the acronym STEAM rather than STEM, where the A is for Art. After all, without an A there would be little visibility or for all the S,T,E or M.
Apart from being a witty cipher, STEAM also usefully alludes to the nebulousness and lack of fixity of much multidisciplinary work – something we can’t expect the Browne Review with it’s wide scope to have picked up on, despite the creative industries being a priority for successive  governments.

However it could be argued that the modern creative industries are at the vanguard of exploring STEAM and creating value from it. If you want proof that STEAM as a concept is in the ascendant, look at Universities UK report “Creating Prosperity: the role of higher education in driving the UK’s creative economy” published in December 2010. (whilst 72 pages to the Browne Review’s 60, a word search shows that this document uses the word ‘Science’ 66 times, ‘Entrepreneur’ 69 times, and ‘Multidisciplinary’ 59 times. I didn’t bother to count ‘Art’ or ‘Creative’….)

steam_UUK-ReportCreating Prosperity declares that “there is often a false opposition established between ‘creative’ subjects on one hand, and STEM subjects on the other. At one level, this is understandable, as the policy priority on STEM has meant a recent emphasis on increasing student places in these subjects, with a concern that this will come at the expense of places elsewhere. The outcomes of Browne and the CSR make this increasingly likely. However, STEM skills are also needed in the creative economy, whether engineers in broadcasting or maths and physics skills in computer games development. This is consistently overlooked in current debates that seek to polarise STEM and creative disciplines….Indeed, creative skills are needed in all industries, including those supported by the STEM disciplines. This clearly challenges a narrow view of STEM as the sole route to economic growth”
The report also includes 17 case studies- many of them highlighting what many educationalists have been calling STEAM (it’s not my invention) in practice, that is to say Art adding value to STEM. The report mentions that “much of this (multidisciplinary) activity takes place in spite of sometimes inflexible structures in universities, and the subject-based nature of funding policy and research assessment” (p24) .

The future of higher education is reliant on students terraforming the landscape with their well-informed demands for profitable skills, but the information they will get seems to be based mainly on the metrics of future employment, intelligence of which will always be behind the curve. Three years later they may roll off the conveyor belt to find a different landscape. So it makes sense to have transferable skills. But how do you sell creative courses with their multidisciplinarity, innovation and entrepreneurism to students who are being nudged into the priority sectors and seeming certainties of science and technology and possibly more stable future income? That’s our challenge in the creative industries, now that the Browne review’s inventive and wide ranging findings have been accepted.

Creating Prosperity takes to task “the belief of successive governments that science,  technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects represent the exclusive route to economic success” and adds that “STEM and creativity are inextricably linked – successful knowledge economies need strength in both”

A computer game is only an economic success if its imagery and animation matches and complements the code and circuitry it plays through; likewise a film’s story is only realised through multiple hardware technologies. TV’s broadcast engineers and IT infrastructure props up the “X Factor” as much as the artistic talent in front and behind the lens. This is increasingly the world of STEAM.
A surfeit of either programmers or artists means we become a nation for hire, having to outsource our services abroad.

steam_Students2We need to articulate the notion of STEAM (or another snappy acronym), and fast. As Creating Prosperity recognises, this is what Skillset has been advising policymakers for a while through our regular Sector Skills Assessments, but maybe it’s time to package and communicate this concept in a neat, concise and friendly way for this new breed of discerning student who may gravitate towards cheaper and easily defined STEM courses, instead of understanding the notion of STEAM.
Whilst it’s true that many creative sectors suffer from a shortage of programmers and a surfeit of artistic talent, the promotion of STEM through cheaper courses and clearer job route metrics on future income could skew the market so we have a shortage of creative and multidisciplinary teamwork savvy talent. Imagine being a fresh-faced games programming student at a university where there are no image assets to incorporate, because the games art course they hoped to be collaborating with had withered due to the market finding it too expensive. What context would such students have for working in the real world of teamwork, or innovation?

If students are to become more like shoppers, we need to think about how we can get the idea of STEAM across.
This is where the creative industry itself can have a powerful voice. As video games executive and interactive content producer John Tarnoff says  “In my experience as an executive and entrepreneur sitting on both sides of the creative/technology fence, I need to hire technologists who know how to collaborate in teams, express themselves coherently, engagingly and persuasively, understand how to take and apply constructive criticism, and how to tell a good story. I don’t find these kids sitting alone at a lab table or buried in an algorithm. I find them taking art classes to understand how color and light really work, I find them in writing classes learning how to express themselves, I find them in cultural studies and critical theory classes learning about the world at large”.

It’s an old cliché to say there is no ‘I’ in TEAM, but maybe we need to append that to say there IS a team in STEAM…..

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