From STEM to STEAM: Changing The Equation

August 5, 2016

What do Pinterest, YouTube, and Kickstarter all have in common? Besides being household names, these tech industry giants were all founded by designers. While design has always played a role in tech, it is now front and center in bringing products to life.

Despite this, design has not been as big a part of the conversation about increasing participation and diversity in tech careers. For the professionals, policymakers, and educators leading the charge for diversity, tech has primarily meant computer science and software development. Coding programs are widely available for learners at every age and career stage. The same cannot be said for design, though this is starting to change.

One shift is the push to include art and design in STEM to create STEAM. Spearheaded by the Rhode Island School of Design, STEAM education has garnered support from the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and a number of educational institutions. Together, these organizations have recognized the inherent creativity in STEM innovation and that art and design can power creative capacity.

Historically, STEM and art have been seen as opposites — left brain vs. right brain, rational vs. emotional, etc. Design is perhaps the disciple that best integrates the two. In software development, for example, design is a process that uses elements of the scientific method to inquire, conceive, test, and draw conclusions about what will inspire user action. From my vantage point as a developer, design runs the show. Engineering enables a seamless realization of a designer’s vision.


A lot more needs to be done to encourage people of diverse backgrounds to pursue design. Good design is central to creating the products and services people use everyday. Sometimes the barriers to entry start early. For example, I grew up in a household where creative talents were seen as hobbies, not practical career pursuits. I’m sure there are plenty of young people receiving these same messages and not investing the time and resources that will make their talents valuable and lucrative. Changing that misperception is a critical first step to bringing more diverse talent into the space.

Institutionally, the conversation about integrating arts into STEM fields needs more support. Rather than treating art as enrichment or leisure, it should be seen as an expression of rigorous critical thinking. Students pursuing STEM fields have a lot to gain from the expansive thinking that art requires. Again, design is where these disciplines merge because it puts art within the bounds of application, usefulness, and functionality. Art for its own sake has its place, but design is art in service of people’s everyday needs.

Greater diversity in design careers starts from how we talk about art and design. Discussing STEM and art in terms of hard and soft skills applies a value judgement that privileges the former over the latter. It’s an oversimplification that discourages a lot of talented people from pursuing one of the most important fields in our innovation economy.

Photo CC-BY 2.0, Allan Ajifo, modified

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