STEM vs the Arts: Why the discussion matters.

By Elizabeth Jarrard

Generally speaking, STEM (described as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) are fields of study in which there is often a high demand for labor and headhunting those who have acquired extensive education, training, and work experience in these fields is an ongoing struggle for employers. Thus, it seems as though at least in the western world, we are not doing enough to educate and prepare our youngest students for these fields and therefore, jobs that are in higher demand and require extensive education and training can usually command higher salaries. This isn’t just a matter of utility vs esthetics, however. And this isn’t the whole story.

Do we value those trained in mathematics and sciences more than we value creative designers and liberal artists? We certainly pay STEM graduates more.

What value do science and technology have if it merely offers us a world in which the arts are dispensable?

As much as shoebox skyscrapers, puffing smokestacks and eight-lane superhighways were meant to improve our lives, design matters. Artful esthetics and ambiance matter and improve our general sense of well-being.

“I’ve said this before, but thought it was worth repeating: It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” - Steve Jobs (1955-2011).

Photo:  Roman Mager

One such organization that believes the STEM fields should incorporate the arts into the discussion and be invited to the board meeting is

This science vs the arts debacle is a hot debate in many cultures around the world and it tends to pique the interest of respective governing policies and educational organizations vying for public and private funding. Nobody would argue against the importance of the STEM fields. The clamber and competition for the financial support STEM fields require is one reason why many argue against incorporating the arts into the discussion. It could be argued that many staunch STEM proponents fiercely guard what they view as competition for funding. Perhaps among those staunch STEM supporters is an elitist attitude that those trained in STEM fields require more skills, more dedication, and more native intelligence than the creative, artistic fields require of their labor force. Ouch.

The STEAM movement is in its relative infancy but for its proponents, striving for a more holistic approach to circumvent the seemingly unilateral lobbying power of the STEM fields might be a byproduct of their efforts, even if it is not their mission.

Art and design are crucial components of technology and engineering. In fact, a team of social science researchers was granted funding and set out to discover how a team of synthetic biologists and team artists and designers would work together on a collaborative project. What did the social scientists discover about the “creatives”? Their “work ethic,” their “humor,” and their penchant for irony and pushing boundaries?

Well, these researchers discovered that the artists and designers were sought out by the synthetic biologists to help them solve questions of design and ‘future possibilities,’ (abstraction) and although they were seen to be taken less seriously than the biologists (apparently, they talked about armpit cheese), the creatives were more playful, challenging, and sometimes subversive in their engagements with the biologists. In fact, the social scientists who designed the project made the astute observation that the synthetic biologists preferred the company and collaboration of the artists over the company and collaboration of the social scientists.

Liberal arts and STEM need not be diametrically opposed. In fact, it seems these fields must work collaboratively in order to realize the pinnacles of human innovation.

To put a cease-fire to the infighting between the liberal arts and sciences, educators and employers should see how they can reinterpret how we educate students and employ those whose expertise is in the liberal arts and design. Even if they have to ask them to stop talking about armpit cheese.

In addition, some countries that rank lower on international test scores for mathematics were actually some of the most innovative nations, technologically speaking. Sweden, Israel, and the United States are three countries that consistently test lower on mathematics scores, but score higher on entrepreneurship and technological innovation due to a number of factors that include openness, work environments that are less hierarchical, and shall we say, mounds of bravado (the students from these countries even believed they were better at math than they actually were). Self-belief must count for something.  

In the next article in this series, we will highlight artists and designers who are “making it” in STEM fields. And how “creating artifacts” enriches our lives and our corporations.

For more information about STEAM curriculum, we discovered a helpful resource: Georgette Yakman.


Be Heard. Get Paid.

Elizabeth Jarrard