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From STEM to STEAM

Breaking educational boundaries by fusing science, arts and humanities.
 


 

Within the United States, politicians and educators alike are pushing for greater public education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—a grouping commonly referred to by the acronym STEM.

According to Manil Suri, though, there’s one letter missing from this acronym.

Suri, a novelist who was born in Mumbai and is currently professor of mathematics at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), believes that arts can play a key role in helping to teach these subjects, transforming STEM into STEAM.

“STEM subjects are considered difficult to learn and there’s been a push to make them accessible not just to young students, but also to adults in order to raise the scientific knowledge of the general American population,” says Suri. “There have also been studies that show that having a workforce educated in mathematics and science is going to be increasingly important as our society changes. That’s true everywhere; not just in the U.S.”

“The question is,” he continues, “how do you help people learn these very technical, challenging topics?”

For Suri, the answer lies in an organic fusion of the sciences, arts and humanities. In other words, finding ways to teach the seemingly disparate topics at the same time. He has put this strategy into practice by co-writing a play, called “The Mathematics of Being Human,” with UMBC’s English professor Michele Osherow.

“The play is set in an American university, where the two main characters are mathematics and English professors who are forced by their administrators to jointly teach a seminar on literature and mathematics,” he describes. “The other two characters are a girl, who is very good at mathematics but has not pursued it, and a boy, who is the classic underperforming class joker. And while the professors are fighting and unhappy at having to teach together, the students are actually trying to get something out of the experience.”

The play is loosely inspired by Suri’s and Osherow’s experience of teaching a joint class to humanities scholars. “In that class, we looked at plays that had mathematical topics and how mathematics can be used to do research in the humanities,” says Suri. “There are various notable intersections between the two areas and the play just grew out of our experience. And while it is very fictionalized,” he continues with a laugh, “we did see that people have very different approaches to these two areas and can be protective of their own turf. In a funny and interesting sort of way, we wanted the play to examine those tensions and how they affect students, and also convey some of the mathematical ideas that we addressed in the class.”

The professors’ efforts have achieved success and recognition, with performances of the play at UMBC, the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City, the Joint Mathematical Meetings Conference in Texas and more. In early 2016, Suri plans to bring the play to Mumbai and New Delhi, in partnership with the U.S. Embassy. This will include a performance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, as part of its Ibteda festival.

“The reactions have been very positive, both from mathematicians and non-mathematicians,” says Suri. “One of the nicest things I heard was that a non-mathematician saw the play and wanted to go home and immediately look up the word ‘fractal,’ since that’s one of the concepts that we discuss in the play. We want to provoke curiosity. So, it’s wonderful that our audience members then want to go home and learn.”

Most importantly, he adds, it’s the characters’ overall attitudes toward their respective disciplines that audiences have found most thought-provoking. “They start thinking about their own attitudes toward science, mathematics, the arts and the humanities,” he says. “That’s what our entire purpose is.”

Suri hopes that his efforts will help STEAM become as much of a buzzword as STEM currently is and that further efforts to combine subjects like mathematics and writing will be made at the national and international levels. “I can see a STEAM approach to teaching helping my mathematics students phrase their ideas well and write good arguments. It can also work the other way, where mathematics skills help people in the humanities think and analyze in different ways,” he says. “There’s a definite symbiosis and, in a few years, I think we’re going to be hearing much more about STEAM.”

 

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.