Problem-Solving by Design


Educators at the Rhode Island School of Design highlight the benefits of adding creative arts to traditional STEM studies.

According to politicians, economists and industry leaders around the world, the effective teaching of STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—will be key to success, both technological and financial, locally and internationally, for decades to come.

But a growing movement says that the acronym is incomplete. By integrating the arts into more traditional scientific and technical studies, transforming STEM into STEAM, innovative educators are showing just how powerful a creative approach to science-related subjects can be. 

Babette Allina serves as the executive director of government relations at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). The institution teaches disciplines like painting, sculpture, industrial design, architecture and textiles, and has been at the forefront of the STEM-to-STEAM movement since it began. 

Starting in 2011, Allina and colleagues from RISD have been working closely with Democratic and Republican congresspeople to integrate the arts into STEM curricula and make federal funding for STEM studies available for art and design programs as well, from kindergarten to postgraduate studies. Their efforts also include transforming research policy to include art and design, and encouraging industry leaders to drive innovation by hiring dedicated artists and designers. 

Allina describes the STEM-to-STEAM movement as gaining momentum not just on the national, lawmaking front, but also within a growing number of educational institutions around the world. Several colleges and universities are creating STEAM programs of their own. It’s a trend she expects to only increase with every passing year.

Roots of STEAM

As a movement, STEM-to-STEAM began from the ground up. “Our efforts to integrate the arts into traditional STEM studies is really based on student interest in advocating for creativity in the world and in their careers,” says Allina. “Many of our students, and RISD’s leadership, shared concerns about how there seemed to be a hyper-focus within the United States on STEM, including government investment in those subjects, as a way to make the country globally competitive, especially in the face of jobs moving overseas for manufacturing.” 

“We all felt that there was something important missing from that equation,” she says.

Allina sees the blending of the arts and STEM subjects as a key to economic and technological success, both for individual students and nations as a whole. In particular, such a fusion is required, she says, due to the ever-increasing integration of artificial intelligence (AI) into our daily life and business. 

“How are we going to interface with robots as they become more and more ubiquitous?” asks Allina. “Creative and technologically-skilled designers are becoming increasingly important, as we see more AI. A key question always is: ‘How do we humanize technology in an increasingly automated world?’ ‘How do we build empathy into the design process of new technologies?’ ”  

“These are scientific and engineering questions,” she continues, “but they’re inherently art- and design-based questions as well.”

Allina has seen the potential of STEAM not just in the technological horizon, but also with her own student interns at RISD. In particular, she points to two graduates who participated in the school’s political efforts and are now successfully involved in the design aspects of creating new finance-oriented technology. A third student, Sarah Pease, studied at RISD as a “hands-on maker,” says Allina, focusing on furniture design. “She was very accomplished and became a designer for a small software start-up after she graduated in 2015,” says Allina. “She now works as a designer on the Civic Engagement team at Facebook, focusing on how users interact with Facebook regarding elections. Stories like hers help prove the point that adding the ‘A’ in STEM has powerful, real-world results that can touch millions of people.”

STEAM for India

The STEM-to-STEAM evolution transcends languages and locations, with fascinating progress happening not just within the United States, but in India as well. During a recent STEAM conference in Barcelona, Spain, for example, Allina was introduced to the work of Arvind Gupta, an Indian toy inventor, whom she calls a wonderful popularizer of science for kids. 

“Gupta creates learning tools that teach engineering concepts to children through hands-on experiences,” says Allina, “and the experiments are conducted with objects, sometimes even pieces of trash, which are readily available anywhere in India.” These toy-based explorations, which have been distributed widely throughout the country via newspapers, magazines, books and television, include “How Does an Aircraft Fly?”, which uses drinking straws to teach principles of aerodynamics. Another, called “Pumps from the Dump,” shows how to create a variety of functional water and air pumps using tools like discarded PVC (polyvinyl chloride) piping and film canisters. 

“Gupta has come up with an incredibly creative, fun, STEAM- and design-based way to put science in the hands of students,” says Allina. “His experiments are such thoughtful ways to introduce these concepts to even the poorest kids, so that those who don’t have access to iPads and other technology can still learn about STEM subjects.”

Whether teaching the principles of physics to the needy or reshaping the face of the world’s largest social media networks, the STEAM movement shows no signs of losing its own proverbial steam.


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