Civic Data Alliance

STEAM vs STEM: Why CDA Believes in Art

As a data focused organization, it would seem a bit strange on the surface for CDA to make the dive into STEAM versus sticking with just STEM, and yet, there is plenty of evidence that tells us that STEAM is vital to data and work done with data.

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics. Often in our technology fields, STEAM gets pushed to the side in favor of STEM with little thought or question as to why. Some argue that there is no place for the humanities, including art, within the logic and algorithmic consistency of data, but that is simply not true.

“…every engineer who comes up with a new innovation practices far more than math, engineering, and technological prowess. They also use design-thinking, creativity, communication, and artistic skills to bring those innovations to fruition. The antiquated idea that scientists are isolated workers huddled away in laboratories is a falsehood.” (1)

Raw data is simply not enough anymore. Data needs to be open. Data needs to be accessible. Data needs to be readable. Data needs to be in a format that can be distributed among those who aren’t of the data science variety. Data requires design and understanding. These are aspects of the “A” in STEAM: Art. Data visualization is a form of art.

Art deals with the “why?” aspect of data that is so desperately needed in our communities. Data for the sake of data is no longer a place we can afford to be. Pursuing the “why” requires humanities: ethics, responsibility, design-thinking, curiosity, empathy, introspection, inclusivity. “These aren’t elements of dosage or measurement, but rather touch upon more abstract ideas of rights, values, and meaning — core elements in our study of the humanities. It’s time for the rest of the STEM field to engage with the same issues.”(1)

By including Art in our education, we ask students to engage with the “why” long before they are ever analyzing data. We allow for questions about how different technologies affect people, why it’s important to understand bias in algorithms, how different designs approach accessibility, and what ways we can increase inclusivity in our sciences. “The purpose of STEAM should not be so much to teach art but to apply art in real situations. Applied knowledge leads to deeper learning.” (2)

Becoming an organization that values STEAM over STEM has its benefits. Not only does it open the parameters of who can be involved in civic technology by including Art, but it also crosses implied barriers that STEM has established in regards to marginalized people. If we include Art, and by association, humanities, into our STEM communities, we engage in critical thinking, interpersonal skills, and ethics that combat biases against women and people of color in all areas of data. STEAM allows for diversity and inclusivity that benefits our technological communities both inherently and on the bottom line.

“…we need to make STEAM study engaging, relevant, and connected to the real world. Not just to make it interesting, but because STEAM really is real-world learning.” (3) STEAM allows for real world considerations, not simply limiting studies to a lab or confined desktop space. Data exists within the real world, so applying it with understanding the implications of it within the parameters of humanity is vital to the “why”. Within civic technology, the “why” is our driving force. As we move toward including Art and prioritizing STEAM over STEM, we are better able to serve our communities and fulfill our mission of using data to benefit all people.

The Conversation Ed Week HuffPo

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