Last month the Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC) hosted its first Science Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM) day since COVID. I was asked to be part of the opening session to welcome the primary school students, to give them an overview into what it is we do as an organisation and the tasks they would be completing.
When discussing what I might say it led to me having a debate within the office around should it be STEM or STEAM? (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths). For the last two decades I have been an advocate of STEAM but to many of my colleagues this was a modification on the acronym that they knew and so the questioning began into why would you add ‘Arts’ into this well-established abbreviation?
We can start with the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary, “Art - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
Splitting out the first half of this definition clearly aligns with the great works from individuals of the past such as Leonardo Da Vinci, who demonstrated how important it is to combine the arts with the sciences to solve important engineering challenges – showing that this idea of STEAM is not a new concept, but actually one that is deep rooted in the past. Visibly this alignment can also be seen in structures such as the Pantheon in Rome. Its dome remains the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome and is a beautifully artistic structure.
Coming forward to the current day my employment within the automotive sector, it is agreed that cars are not judged only on their technology and engineering performance but also by their design and aesthetic qualities so again backing the STEAM agenda.
As an advocate of my profession, I am often invited to go into schools to talk about what engineers do. The key here is to help inspire the pupils that you speak to, whether that be primary school children, who are like sponges for information and questioning everything they have seen on YouTube. Or it may be those in Year 11, who tell me they are going to be professional sports players or influencers on social media so why do they need to think of careers such as engineering? To inspire and engage it is important to hook on to something that interests and excites them. For primary school children, it is easier as you can show STEAM in everything from wind turbines to electric vehicles to prosthetics to the chocolate bars that they eat, but for those secondary school students, it is around the design and creation of those solutions from make-up and fashion to how improved performance on the football pitch is provided by engineering solutions optimising tactics.
One thing is noticeable though and that is that over the past two decades things have begun to change, the insight that these students have has grown due to the amount of information and content that is more accessible in the public domain. However, one topic that is now always on their question list. What are you going to do about climate change?
With the recent heatwave it is now reported that July 2023 was the hottest one ever recorded, with average temperatures at least 1.1°C hotter globally than pre-industrial levels, our children are fully aware of the damage this is doing to our planet and are wondering about what they can do to mitigate or reduce this. This is where STEAM needs to come back into the discussion. The solutions that are needed are diverse and currently no one has the answers. We are all working to look at what we can do to mitigate damage or reduce our impact but how do we turn back the clock? It is these future generations of students that will help develop the solutions needed, they are going to be living in the ever changing world day by day. I believe that the key here is about ensuring that the STEAM subjects are accessible and promoted to all. Diversity of thought, problem solving, discussion, design, and implementation is needed across all sectors and regions of the world if we are going to have the right solutions for society to solve the largest engineering problem that we have ever faced. I believe it will come down to the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination which will help to solve this challenge hence, I remain rooted to my statement that it should be STEAM and not STEM.