From STEM to STEAM: Why Arts is Essential to Learning

‘Soft’ skill-intensive occupations will make up two-thirds of the Australian jobs.
The 'Art' part of the STEAM acronym might prove to be the most significant.

The two greatest human attributes have always been our imagination and our intellect. Confronted with difficulties, our ability to use both is the best weapon in our problem-solving arsenal. In our current time of challenge and change, I believe we have a duty to younger generations to provide an education that cultivates both the technical and artistic facets of their minds. With these capabilities, I believe we can help them fully realise their potential and continue to prosper in an ever-evolving world.

After spending almost 20 years in the tech industry, I have seen the incredible things that STEM education and jobs have contributed to society. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has made one thing crystal-clear: society is rapidly changing. Accordingly, the future of work calls for graduates who are dynamic, collaborative and innovative. We know that creativity is already rapidly permeating throughout the workforce – by 2030, ‘soft’ skill-intensive occupations will make up

Schools have taken advantage of development in commercial technology and digital workforce demand to evolve their educational models for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), but have done comparatively little to improve the way they teach soft skills. I would love to see schools account for the changes in the job market by creating dynamic, modern educational environments where students can learn to express themselves creatively, analytically and thoughtfully.

The Rise of a New Workforce
In the past, the value of school was to get into university, the value of university was to get an entry-level job, the value of an entry-level job was to get a more senior job, and so forth. Modern workforces are increasingly moving away from this ladder-like system. Instead, employers are placing higher value on skills that cannot be rote learned, such as ingenuity, adaptability and teamwork. Unfortunately, graduates with these qualities are in short supply. According to a LinkedIn survey reported by CNBC, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to find candidates with a sufficient command of soft skills to effectively solve challenges they face on their jobs.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 8% growth for STEM and STEM-related occupations between now and 2029 – clearly, STEM knowledge is still a cornerstone of this type of work. However, this knowledge requires creativity and collaboration to turn into real-world solutions. Anyone can memorise what the textbook says – the magic is in knowing how to apply it.

Schools should not then be valued as a mere stepping-stone into a predetermined career, but rather as an opportunity to equip students with a hybrid of hard and soft skills that they can apply in a myriad of different situations.

This is simple enough to say, but how do we achieve it? I believe the answer lies in bringing the Arts into STEM education, turning it into STEAM.

This is more than a handy acronym amendment. The aim here is to inspire students to think outside of the traditional boxes of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and start using creative arts and design thinking to apply STEM concepts to the real world.

In a STEAM-powered classroom, students take on interdisciplinary tasks to foster the in-demand skills of the new-collar job market: lateral thinking, creative application of knowledge, and imaginative instincts. For example, a teacher might use a literature lesson as a platform to discuss programming, or perhaps a drawing lesson as a path to explore human anatomy. STEAM education helps students draw links between naturally - but not obviously - interconnected disciplines. The students then benefit holistically from experiential learning and persisting in problem-solving as they work through the creative process.

It’s been known for a while that art-engaged kids do better in tests: there is a wealth of research that supports the notion. But that’s not the be-all-and-end-all of STEAM education. It is the unquantifiable abilities taught by interactive storytelling, open-ended prompts and engaging lessons that will endow students with the skills that will impress employers. That’s the thing I love most about STEAM education: it makes school worth more than exam marks.

The Technologies that Bring STEAM to Life
If classrooms employ STEAM education in order to prepare students for the modern world, it’s only right that they use the most effective and innovative technology. During my time in the tech industry, I have seen many technological developments, but I believe that there are particular digital resources that will be especially beneficial for classrooms.

The ever-growing number of digitally-savvy students will expect laptops to have superior graphics performance to bring lessons to life. Online file-sharing and creative software suites, such as those from Autodesk and Adobe, will also be needed for them to draw up designs, craft storyboards and share ideas - even on the go. This too requires strong performance capabilities and an intuitive computer interface.

As well, immersive technologies are already making inroads to the classroom. Virtual reality headsets can now transport students anywhere on earth, bringing learning to life as they explore historical landmarks right in front of their eyes. Interactive robots with cognitive functions have also been developed: they serve as platforms for learning anything from speaking and listening skills to block-based programming.

To deliver on their promise of technology-enhanced STEAM education, schools will need to invest in powerful workstations and edge devices, which are the building blocks of demanding workloads. This is especially true as students engage in demanding tasks like animation or 3D-rendering outcomes at the higher-education level. There are also lightweight options, including single-board computers (SBCs), which are emerging as compact and powerful tools for students to run tests and build prototypes.

Ultimately, schools must now invest in a deep technology foundation, as powerful and versatile devices will become essential to any STEAM-based curriculum. These devices are the building blocks to a more comprehensive education system from primary, through to high school and beyond.

Emma Ou is the APAC Strategy Planning Director/Regional Head of ASUS ANZ - System Business Group and the catalyst of digital transformation at ASUS. She is responsible for developing new markets and businesses in the region, as well as initiating and driving digitisation projects across business units with cross department strategy alignment.

Image by Steve Johnson