Kathleen Hickey, my Jazz dance teacher, recently asked us to reflect on some newspaper articles about "STEAM" (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math -- an addition to the usual acronym of "STEM"). Here's what I wrote.

As someone who's an artist (writer, musician, illustrator, dancer, improv theatre performer, and more), engineer (electrical/computer/software), and engineering education researcher, I have a whole tangle of thoughts on this topic that goes far beyond the confines of this short reflection, but I'll try to be brief.

I'll start by saying three things:

  1. I'm an artist and an engineering educator.
  2. The “STEAM” acronym annoys me terribly.
  3. The reason it annoys me is that I see “artist” and “engineer” as the same identity.

There's not a hard boundary between “STEM” and this “art stuff.” The acronym of STEAM does itself both a service and a disservice – yes, engineering and art should both taught, but to say they should be taught “alongside” one another seems to imply that they are separate things, and that we can split them into buckets and then conveniently stack them atop each other. Both articles treat “A” and “STEM” as distinct entities, with verbiage like “applying technology to the arts” or “incorporating the arts into science.”

This seems to imply that one has to choose sides, to code-switch, to belong (or at least belong first) to one culture or the other, which can start the two worlds touching – but will ultimately keep them from merging. It will also make it more difficult for people who identify with both to comfortably express themselves as fully integrated – the dominant rhetoric and metanarrative won't allow it. Pick one, or say you're one of those strange double-major, cross-disciplinary oddities; compartmentalize.

Art has engineering inside it; it always has. Partnering work teaches us about biology, friction, and structure. Choreography has patterns, repetition, shape. STEM has art inside it; it always has. We make color-coding choices in our graphs, dream about snakes to understand how benzene molecules circle together. This world is fluid and interconnected, and our minds are what tease everything apart. It becomes politically convenient to separate them into distinct departments and colleges and funding sources; it becomes a resource strategy to write grants calling for an “A” in “STEAM” – and so we do. Good things happen when we do that, to be sure.

But this is a story – one of many stories that could be told. And we must look at the narrators, and their motives, and the other interpretations that those narrators could have chosen but have instead rejected, and the functions that these stories serve.