I have recently learned about the concept of STEAM. And I like it. A lot. So, while STEM is a rather common acronym at this point (standing for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), STEAM is less well-known. To quote the lovely Dr. Seuss,
Big A, Little A, what begins with A? Aunt Annie’s Alligator… A, A, A.*
But also Arts! Thus, STEAM. As this blog article points out, the arts and sciences have actually had a very long history together, despite our current perception of them being more like oil and water. I like that, and I am happy there is a movement to consciously bring the two back together again.
Well, I had occasion to learn quite a bit more about STEAM at the LTER All Scientist Meeting in September 2012. The LTER network is a collection of long term ecological research sites and every three years they have a meeting to touch base about, coordinate, and synthesize research. I went this year and was able to hear about some truly wonderful programs happening at several of the sites. These programs aim to bring the arts and humanities into the fold of the science work happening on-site.
For example, at the North Temperate Lakessite, artists created beautiful water colors, paintings and even a quilt inspired by and helping to interpret the science done on site. Here are two pictures of the gorgeous quilt on display at the conference:
How lovely is that? One of the artists told a story about a scientist who just stared at the quilt for a very long time. The artist approached the scientist and he said he just couldn’t believe it but here was his whole life in a quilt. It was really powerful for him.
In a program that will continue for two hundred years, writers visit sites in the forest to create an ongoing record of their reflections on the relation of people and forests changing together over time.
At the ESA 2012 conference, I heard a poem created at one of the LTER Reflections workshops. I was blown away. As someone who has done a fair bit of reading (and teaching, and one could argue a small bit of research) on the carbon cycle, I just loved this piece with it’s long-term perspective and quirky tone.
Now, at the conferences I attended, presenters placed a great emphasis on how the scientists could benefit from incorporating the A of STEAM into their work, or from at least acknowledging it in some way. Maybe that was because the audience was full of scientists, but I would have liked to hear more about how the artists derive inspiration from the scientists’ work, questions, methods, data, interpretation and writings.
Ultimately, these projects are all very exciting and I am happy they exist, pushing the intellectual and emotional boundaries of both artists and scientists. I do think that integrating arts and sciences will take more than just using arts as a means for portraying the science and sharing it with a wider audience, so I think there will be great value in art that is more than just representative. I think that we have yet to see how science and the process of science will change over time at sites incorporating the arts – an exciting piece of all this. I am certainly eager to hear more about these kinds of partnerships to see how this will develop!
* Oh how I do love Dr. Seuss. ABC is one of my favorites, but the Butter Battle Book is a very close second. Ah, but who can forget the Sneetches and other stories?? Wasn’t that the one with Mrs. McCave and her 23 sons each of whom she named Dave?! Yertle the Turtle – brilliant.