GATHERING STEAM: BRIDGING THE ARTS AND SCIENCES TO EXPAND PUBLIC INTEREST IN SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, ENGINEERING, AND MATH

Coordinators: Marjory Blumenthal and Ken Goldberg

Many of the world’s most important innovations resulted from collaborations among specialists with different backgrounds; almost all scientists and engineers recognize the power of collaboration and communication across STEM disciplines. As in STEM, creativity also flourishes in the arts and design. Brilliant and highly original novels, plays, films, and artworks engage and inspire audiences around the world, while people in all walks of life appreciate the fields of architecture, graphics, and industrial design. Those latter fields can translate directly into innovations. Even with steady progress in interdisciplinarity generally, connections between STEM and the arts and design remains limited, although they have been growing over the past decade. The trend points to a historic opportunity for experts from the Arts and the Sciences to begin a new series of conversations and collaborations.

Bridging the Two Cultures is a grand challenge. There is a fundamental asymmetry and complementarity between them: the word Science comes from the Greek “to cut.” The word Art comes from the Latin “to join.” The results can be extremely productive by expanding public interest and engagement with both sectors, bringing new topics to new audiences, and educating and inspiring the next generation to transcend existing boundaries to discover and create the future of innovations. STEM fields have always valued creative minds, and the best artists excel at highly unconventional, unorthodox thinking. Artists also are excellent at capturing and representing the zeitgeist in elegant, compelling ways. That quality suggests that fruitful collaboration between scientists and artists can yield not only interesting ideas and “products,” they may also build in effective modes of communicating the value of that work to a wide audience.

We endorse the acronym STEAM as a shorthand to describe new collaborative initiatives that engage experts from both the Arts and STEM.1 A key emphasis is new ways to achieve synthesis—connections among disparate modes of thought, viewpoints, and cultures—as a means toward the ends of discovery and innovation, as well as more effective education and communication about the intrinsic value of STEM and the Arts. We propose convening a cross-disciplinary committee to explore the potential for STEAM, focusing initially on computer science and engineering to formulate recommendations for action.

Background and Next Steps

In the early 2000s, the potential impact of linking computer science and the arts was recognized beyond the niches of computer graphics and computer music. The Rockefeller Foundation commissioned a study by the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies. Their report, Beyond Productivity (2003),2  introduced the term “information technology and creative practices” (ITCP) and spurred the Creative-IT program at NSF.3 In the ensuing years, the political and technological landscapes have changed dramatically.

Understanding of both opportunities and issues may be served by conducting STEAM case studies. A few recent exemplary collaborations between scientists and artists include:

Doctor Atomic opera about the Manhattan Project

  • Breaking the Code, Broadway play about Alan Turing
  • A Beautiful Mind biography of John Nash
  • Laurie Anderson as NASA Artist in Residence
  • LOGICOMIX, graphical novel about the history of Logic
  • Bruce Nauman’s installations using infrared surveillance cameras
  • The Listening Post and Moveable Type collaborative projects of Mark Hansen (statistician) and Ben Rubin (artist)

We believe now is the time to:

  • Define STEAM and characterize exemplary case studies
  • understand where are the most promising and high-impact activities, projects, programs, and domains and the roles of different kinds of players, such as universities, not- and for-profit private-sector organizations, government organizations, and philanthropy
  • explore what it would take to engage the most talented scientists and artists in STEAM
  • consider novel mechanisms, such as engaging “principal artists” alongside “principal investigators” (as well as providing incentives to engage people who are hybrids, skilled in both the arts/design and computer science/engineering (or other STEM fields)
  • engage leading artists (fine, applied, and performing) and designers with experts from STEM fields to collaborate on new ideas and approaches that can effectively reach the broader public and provide the foundation for future innovation, education, and synthesis.

1 We recognize that some use STEAM to focus on educational activity; we use the term more broadly to cover research and other productive output as well as the education that enables it.

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