Mazes made of laser beams. Earrings studded with blinking lights. Science, technology, and engineering are pretty cool, but where would they be without artistic flair? Would the iPhone enjoy so much popularity if it weren’t beautiful as well as useful?
That’s the idea driving the STEAM Carnival, a whimsical, tech-infused event that’ll be taking place in Los Angeles this week on October 25 and 26. With its emphasis on collaboration and interdisciplinary learning, it’s the kind of opportunity that would be perfectly at home in Pittsburgh.
Though its name might suggest otherwise, the carnival isn’t steam-powered. The STEAM movement recognizes that art (the “A” in STEAM) shouldn’t be an afterthought in STEM fields. Rather, the movement acknowledges that art is actually crucial to the growth and development of science and technology.
John Maeda, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), is one of the de facto leader of the STEAM movement. In his words, quoted on the STEAM Carnival’s website, “Amidst the attention given to the sciences as how they can lead to the cure of all diseases and daily problems of mankind, I believe that the biggest breakthrough will be the realization that the arts, which are conventionally considered useless, will be recognized as the whole reason why we ever try to live longer or live more prosperously.”
Last year, Maeda testified at a congressional briefing on why it’s important for education reformers to start talking about STEAM instead of STEM. He’s serious about this goal—and for good reason.
A study from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) looked at public elementary schools’ arts offerings between the 1999−2000 school year and the 2009–2010 school year. The authors found that in that period, the proportion of schools with designated visual arts classes went from 87 percent to 83 percent. In the cases of dance and theater, the decreases were more dramatic: 17 percentage points and 16 percentage points, respectively.
With arts programs nationwide facing threats from budget cuts, after school programs like the ones in the Kids+Creativity Network play a crucial role in picking up some of the slack. That’s especially true in Pittsburgh.
As a hub for start-ups and game design, the City of Bridges has much to gain from focusing on STEAM learning, whether that’s in the classroom or outside of it. Students poised to enter fields that require a mixture of creative thinking and technical expertise need to know how to engage both the left and right sides of their brains. To give just one example of arts education’s impact: In 1998, Shirley Brice Heath, a linguistics and anthropology professor at Stanford, found that low-income, at-risk students who were heavily involved in afterschool arts programs were two times more likely to win academic achievement awards and four times more likely to participate in math or science fairs than their uninvolved peers.
Of course, plenty of schools and organizations in Pittsburgh have risen to the challenge of providing students outlets for artistic expression. At Elizabeth Forward Middle School, the art room, the technology education room, and the computer science room are no longer separate: They now make up the Dream Factory. The result? Students can learn to create everything from robots to interactive games to 3-D−printed sculptures. With all due respect for traditional arts and crafts, it’s a far cry from making collages.
In many ways, the LA-based STEAM Carnival will be a bigger version of the Dream Factory. Along with featuring fire displays and a mechanical bull—things you probably couldn’t have at a middle school—the carnival will give young attendees the opportunity to create their own entertainment. The carnival’s successful Kickstarter campaign showcases kits for making group games, wearable tech, digital art, and more.
For that extra educational oomph, the carnival organizers have even put together a mentorship team made up of scientists, engineers, and inventors. The goal is to inspire kids to keep up the STEAM learning, “because hey, who’s really stopping you from building that rocket ship to Mars?” the site asks. “We want to give you the ticket to ride.”
Like Pittsburgh, Los Angeles is a City of Learning. This past summer, they pledged to connect kids with citywide educational opportunities and to reward their learning with digital badges. The STEAM Carnival is undoubtedly a badge-worthy event: Attendees can earn three badges, in fact. We’d love to see it in Pittsburgh, pyrotechnics and all.