STEM to STEAM -- Recognizing the Value of Creative Skills in the Competitiveness Debate

There is certainly no question that STEM education and STEM skills are a vital part of this country's edge, but many educators would argue that STEM is missing a key set of creativity-related components.
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When American education is in crisis, policy makers and thought leaders roll out the STEM argument, that the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum needs to be emphasized as the cornerstone of American competitiveness in a world where Chinese students do lightening drills on the periodic table of the elements at age 4 (lol).

There is certainly no question that STEM education and STEM skills are a vital part of this country's edge, but many educators would argue that STEM is missing a key set of creativity-related components that are equally critical to fostering a competitive and innovative workforce, and those skills are summarized under the letter "A" for Arts.

Two years ago, the Conference Board and Americans for the Arts, in association with the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), conducted a survey of executives and school superintendents. The study, called Ready to Innovate, demonstrated that more and more companies are looking for skill sets in their new employees that are much more arts/creativity-related than science/math-related. Companies want workers who can brainstorm, problem-solve, collaborate creatively and contribute/communicate new ideas.

And, interestingly, the study shows that managers are finding a dearth of creative workers trained in these "A" skills. So why is this not part of the overall national debate?

STEM should be amended to STEAM, an idea that has been kicking around with many people in the creative industries for a few years now, and became a key discussion point of the Americans for the Arts 2007 National Policy Roundtable where the Ready to Innovate study was first unveiled.

When we look at America's exports, while technology is a key aspect of what we do, creative culture is the sizzle that sells the steak. Where would Apple be without the killer visual design of their products, their attention-grabbing ad campaigns, the seductive ease of their interface design? Without the "A," there would be no outlet for all the S,T,E or M.

"A" skills in the 21st century actually apply to a larger, broader segment of the workforce than STEM skills. America's competitiveness is equally distinguished by its creative industry productivity and exports, from movies, TV and games (traditionally the highest-ratio export business in the nation) to architecture (Bilbao Guggenheim, anyone?) to the myriad of leading writers, designers, graphic artists and others who use their imagination to create new products and services -- and the infrastructure of creative enterprise managers (producers, editors, financiers, marketers) that support and run their businesses. This cadre, that sociologist Richard Florida defined in 2002 as the Creative Class, represents approximately 30 percent of the United States workforce. In contrast, a quick look at NSF statistics indicates that science and engineering makes up approximately 10 to12 percent of the United States workforce.

In my experience as an executive and entrepreneur sitting on both sides of the creative/technology fence, I need to hire technologists who know how to collaborate in teams, express themselves coherently, engagingly and persuasively, understand how to take and apply constructive criticism, and how to tell a good story. I don't find these kids sitting alone at a lab table or buried in an algorithm. I find them taking art classes to understand how color and light really work, I find them in writing classes learning how to express themselves, I find them in cultural studies and critical theory classes learning about the world at large.

We need both sides of this equation. If we can do this: marry the technical with the creative -- we are golden: competitive, innovative, and ahead of the curve. So let's not forget the "A."

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