Making STEAM

The growing interplay of art and STEM

S – T – E – M. The ubiquity of the STEM acronym – now on the lips of every science outreach professional and educator from K to 20 – has become a sign of commitment to fields that once were perceived to be too dull or difficult for the general population to get behind. President Obama makes liberal use of the four letters, collectively championing science, technology, engineering and math as the country’s way forward to a brighter, more competitive future.

Part of the hard sell behind STEM, which has taken the form of a “science is fun” mantra, is an attempt to chip away at the misconception that fields involving scientific discovery and technological innovation are full of people who’ve rejected pleasure – that becoming a scientist, engineer or mathematician means putting oneself at a remove from the revelry and beauty and comparative accessibility of the humanities or the arts.

Copfer - Einstein

The bacteria show

Read our first story in the series

In the past few years, however, attempts by institutions and individuals to break apart these misconceptions and the academic silos they help to underpin have resulted in a weaving of arts and design into STEM curricula. The resulting integration has its own acronym: STEAM. Champions of STEAM (STEM plus art) talk about the ways in which the artistic and scientific processes echo each other. They emphasize shared values like creativity, experimentation, and a desire for discovery, and they suggest that the inherent connections between the two worlds are balanced by enough difference to produce the right tensions for innovation.

STEAM is remaking classroom experiences and creating collaborations between artists and scientists on a professional scale. Bio artists, some of whom have scientific backgrounds, are incorporating living organisms into gallery shows or working with geneticists to produce new life forms for installations. Sculptors are building homages to the magic of kinesis. Professional theater and dance productions are enjoining audience members to experience the drama and beauty of molecular processes by staging them at a macro level. Scientist-musicians are writing symphonies that reflect biological processes or rock lyrics derived from lab trials.

Intermittently, over the course of this next year, we will feature stories about STEAM works that impress and intrigue us. We will talk to the creators about their own processes of creativity, discovery and innovation and delve into the science that underlies their work. We begin this month with Zachary Copfer, a former pharmaceutical researcher whose “bacteriographs” have become a bio art hit. If what Copfer is doing reminds you of a STEAM project you’ve seen recently, get in touch with us. Help us share more of the wonder of these science-inspired artistic experiments.

Lauren Dockett Lauren Dockett is the managing editor of ASBMB Today.