For decades, much of the meaningful innovation advancing our economy has been associated with the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. But as knowledge becomes more freely accessible and technology expedites our ability to do nearly everything, future innovations will rely on a different skillset: creativity. This marks the first of a series of blog posts about STEAM education from the perspective of a designer and educator working with STEAM every day. I’m the Founder and Design Director of PlusUs, an interdisciplinary firm designing human-centered learning solutions for problems and purposes of the present. We work with schools to consult on matters of curriculum, learning environments, and communications. I also serve as the Program Director of a new design program at The University of the Arts focused on environmental consciousness and entrepreneurship. Throughout my career, I’ve been intentionally integrating art and design mindsets into learning opportunities around the world.
In 2006, Sir Ken Robinson argued that “creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status”, an idea that underpinned the most popular TED talk of all time. Two years later, John Maeda became president of the Rhode Island School of Design, where he sparked a national movement by urging legislators to integrate art and design into the education agenda. Today, the importance of STEAM (an acronym that adds “Art” to STEM) manifests itself in multiple ways: maker education has become a physical representation of these ideas, with many schools investing in new makerspaces or rediscovering their existing shop space. And there’s real momentum behind integrating design thinking into coursework. Where I work in Philadelphia, the Charter High School for Architecture + Design, The U School, and String Theory Schools have missions and pedagogies built around design thinking, where skills like prototyping, iteration, and empathy work are infused into all subjects, even state-tested biology, algebra, and literature. It’s clear that art and design are here to stay. So what’s next for STEAM?
I believe that we’ll continue to see art and design mindsets woven into curriculum, even in the most traditional schools. The ability to think like an artist or designer is about making interesting and unexpected connections, and as these mindsets become more deeply integrated, learners will begin to make creative connections not only within a particular subject, but across subjects. As this happens, we can expect to see the silos that still exist between many classroom subjects begin to dissolve. History’s great creators moved fluidly between fields because they thought in a way that transcended discipline. Leonardo Da Vinci was an engineer and an artist. Michelangelo sculpted, painted, and constructed. I fully expect the future to produce many more creators who think and work in this manner.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to hear Neri Oxman speak, a rockstar contemporary architect and designer creating work at the intersection of computation, fabrication, and materiality. Oxman’s work is mesmerizing, and rightfully in the permanent collections of prominent museums like the MoMA. I think she is a wonderful illustration of what this future may look like. And there are many others who’s creative practice spans multiple arenas that are often siloed: designer Karim Rashidcreates products, space, graphics, fine art, and more. Emily Pilloton is a powerhouse working at the intersection of architecture, environmental design, and education. Bruce Mau began his career as a graphic designer and transitioned to architecture, film, and organizational design. His worked received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2016, the AIGA Gold Medal in 2007, and his Incomplete Manifesto for Growth is essential reading for anyone working in interdisciplinary spaces.
So rather than advocate for the deeper integration of art and design in our classrooms, this series of blog posts will champion the creative mindsets that must be integrated into all disciplines in order to stoke the meaningful innovation our education system and economy crave. To do this, we’ll look at a number of primary sources in the Library of Congress that illustrate these mindsets throughout recent history.