Tech firms are forgetting about STEM and focusing on STEAM

Time to dust off the cobwebs.
Time to dust off the cobwebs.
Image: EPA/Simela Pantzartzi
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It was recently thought that four subjects alone could spur innovation by bringing order and logic to creative thinking: Science, technology, engineering, and math—fields known to much of the modern world by their acronym STEM. But STEM is already passé.

A new acronym has come to the fore, pioneered by advocates like the US’s Rhode Island School of Design, which has developed lessons on it for primary-school and high-school educators. It’s called STEAM, and though it might look and feel very much like its predecessor, the addition of the letter “A” is significant. It represents the “Arts” and tech firms are quickly realizing its importance. Why?

As Tom Perrault, chief of staff at digital health company Rally Health, pointed out in an article for Harvard Business Review, knowing how to make a product is no longer enough—in part because machines will soon be able to automate many of the data-driven tasks associated with this. Where humans can contribute more is in understanding the needs and behavior of the other humans for whom they are making things.

How a product is designed, its aesthetics, and how seamless an integration it makes into a person’s life is what allows us to distinguish one product from another, and one industry competitor from another. Liberal arts-based subjects are key to this because they tend to teach students how to understand human nature, and are creative at heart. Steve Jobs knew this, and said so after Apple’s launch of the iPad in 2011: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that makes our hearts sing.” And now Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, is doing a stint as chancellor of the UK’s Royal College of Arts to help other students realize the importance of this.

It’s not just big tech companies that have taken to the idea. Michael Litt, co-founder of video platform startup Vidyard, said he is hiring more humanities graduates than those who are from STEM-based backgrounds, and is trying to fill in the gaps in his own engineering education by reading up on philosophy and psychology. Indeed, the arts are already more important to tech than you might think. Data compiled by LinkedIn in 2015 found that between 2010 and 2013, the growth of liberal-arts graduates entering the industry outpaced that of computer science and engineering majors by 10%.

Policymakers in the US have also taken to the additional “A”: In March, lawmakers chairing the Congressional STEAM Caucus, created in 2013 by a bipartisan group of US legislators, criticized US president Donald Trump for proposing the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, arguing that “[a]ctivating both sides of the brain prepares people to be innovative and creative, both critical to growing our 21st Century economies and creating good jobs.”

The penchant for mixing arts with science to foster innovative thinking is hardly new, of course. Students of history will remember the idea was popularized in renaissance Italy by the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps it just took a strong STEM trend to reawaken popular appreciation for the concept.