Professor Katie Normington’s article, Creating a Head of STEAM
Feb 26 2016

Here’s a copy of Professor Katie Normington’s article, titled ‘Creating a Head of STEAM’. Katie’s article was recently published in ‘A New STEAM Age, Challenging the STEM Agenda in Research’.

In an essay written for the ScientificAmerican’s blog in 2012, Steven Ross Pomeroy notes that the concept of bringing together arts and science is not a new one. In fact, our efforts to create this convergence within the twenty-first century hark back to much earlier times: Leonardo da Vinci brought the two together in Renaissance Italy.

It appears that, even within contemporary times, those at the forefront of innovation have been merging arts and science practice. Pomeroy notes that “Nobel laureates in the sciences are seventeen times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, twelve times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician”.

Increasingly, companies and educators are becoming aware that encouraging broad-based skills and multi-disciplinary teams is a good thing. This can be evidenced by the growing number of students taking Liberal Arts courses, which according to the American template allows the pursuit of both arts and science units. The science masterclasses run for gifted and talented school children by the Royal Institution deliberately seek to create a breadth of ability and knowledge rather than merely focusing upon advanced skills. “Our solution is not to help teachers by accelerating the students, because that just stores up the problem for the next year or year after”, says Gail Cardew, the RI’s Professor of Science, Culture and Society, and their Director of Science and Education. “Instead we stretch the students sideways by opening up an array of wonderfully creative and imaginative topics related to the worlds of mathematics, engineering and computer science. So, for instance, …students could be learning about maths in fashion, architecture or finance.”

The benefits of mixing arts and science are understood by companies such as IBM, who operate a quota system in recruiting graduates so as to ensure that humanities skills will be developed within the corporation. This is a view shared by Google: in 2011, their vice-president for consumer products declared: “We are going through a period of unbelievable growth and will be hiring about six thousand people this year – and probably four to five thousand from the humanities or liberal arts.”

While there may be little disagreement about the advantages of bringing together arts and science in developing thinking, innovation and technological literacy, there may be some contention over how we train individuals to be skilled in both areas. The English school system encourages early specialisation. At the age of fourteen children decide if they will take double or triple science, and from that point onwards there is little back-tracking, with many schools advising that science A-levels cannot be taken with only a double science GCSE. The proposals for the new EBacc scheme to be introduced for those taking GCSEs from 2020 compounds the issue further. The scheme identifies five core areas that must be studied: English, science, maths, history or geography, and a language. Most controversially, it eliminates the need for any creative engagement with music, art and design, drama, media, or dance. Arguably, the EBacc has been designed as a means of recording schools’ performance rather than as a means to encourage the skills we are likely to need to boost the economy in future.

So how do we create a head of STEAM? The Culture Capital Exchange’s STEM to STEAM debate brought together people from arts, scientific and business backgrounds to advance some ideas. But the challenge in creating a ‘head of steam’ is that there must be sufficient build-up of pressure to create a usable force. This pressure needs to come from business and arts supporters alike lobbying the government with curriculum proposals to create cross-disciplinary programmes such as the innovative BASc in Arts and Science at UCL, or the BA/BSc Digital Media Communications taught by the Departments of Media Arts and Computer Science at Royal Holloway. It also needs schemes to encourage cross-working within small-to-medium-size enterprises as well as major businesses. Only through these measures might a real head of STEAM be created.

Professor Katie Normington

Vice Principal (Staffing) and Dean of Arts and Social Science, Royal Holloway University of London