The ideal of the Renaissance man, the polymath with expertise in a wide range of fields, is long gone. We live in an era of hyperspecialization. And not without reason, as specialization has its undeniable advantages: the more you know about a specific field of knowledge (or subfield), the more chances you have to solve complicated problems. Just think about medical science, its many specializations, and the enormous advances in all the subfields.
However, hyperspecialization has its disadvantages as well.
Firstly, it’s quite difficult to come with a different approach if you are stuck between the limits of our narrow specialization. Innovation is sometimes tackling a problem with new instruments that are used in a different field.
Secondly, on a more abstract level, we might say that a very narrow specialization (together with the decline of general knowledge) deprives any individual of a broader, more profound understanding of life.
Let’s see two examples that are not actually all that improbable to come across nowadays.
The first one: a very successful engineer, at the top of their field, but without any knowledge of the cultural heritage of their country or community. It’s true, an engineer might not need to know Michelangelo’s paintings, but how can they understand the inner craving for aesthetically pleasing things that we all have?
Another example: a brilliant artist without basic knowledge about medicine strongly believes in all sorts of pseudosciences, from astrology to theta healing. How can we be responsible citizens if we don’t understand the basics of biology and medicine?
The solution is aiming towards a more complete and diverse intellectual experience in our educational system. Obviously, we need good specialists and top professionals, but we also need citizens with genuine intellectual curiosity, who trust science and understand the cultural heritage of their country.
This is why STEAM might be a good idea for schools and colleges.
What is STEAM?
As the acronym suggests, STEAM is a curriculum approach; it’s the integration of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with Arts (humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design, and new media).
The main difference between STEM and STEAM is that the latter focuses on scientific concepts from a more creative point of view. For instance, use art in engineering or medicine. It’s a more creative way of learning about the hard sciences.
At the same time, this approach might help more artistic people familiarize themselves with science. In other words, on a more practical level, STEAM is an excellent way of dealing with prevalent misconceptions in education, such as “I am an artistic person, I am not good at math or science” or “I’m good at math, I will not waste my time with arts and humanities”.
On the other hand, in a STEAM curriculum, you allow students to understand more about the cultural background captured by the many artistic manifestations (painting, drama, music, etc.).
Read more: How to S.T.E.A.M. up distance learning
STEAM-ing the future
New ideas come from novel approaches. STEAM helps students “think outside the box”, find creative solutions, and be more prepared for the 21st-century economy, in which creativity and technology seem the perfect mix for the success of new products and services.
Can we imagine the iPhone without its wonderful design? How about product design, an entire industry that combines great craftsmanship, cutting edge engineering, and a wonderful artistic sense of beauty?
With the rise of the IoT (Internet of Things), we can imagine fashion designers working together with engineers specialized in nanotechnology to create smart clothes that feed us with info about our health. It’s already happening to a certain extent (our smartwatches seem to know a lot about our bodies), but imagine the products we will have on the market ten or twenty years from now! A smart dress, a smart necklace for everyone?
Read more: How to enhance students’ work-ready skills
STEAM should be the overall ambition of the educational system. It should aim at empowering students to use their creativity in finding new solutions to everyday problems, and at the same time, help them understand more about life, society, and culture.
We tend to say a lot that “the world is our oyster”. It’s true. Let’s try to know more about this oyster and look at it from many perspectives. STEAM might help us a lot in understanding it.
Veronica is a University lecturer with years of experience in language learning, a translator and interpreter, and a life-long learner.