Right now, governments all over the world seem to agree on one thing — there is not only a damaging shortage of STEM workers in the pipeline, but an entire skills sinkhole that needs to be plugged.
There are many initiatives to drive STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) participation in Australia, including changes to education curricula, various programs to encourage digital and technical skills in students, and a push for more collaboration between universities and industry. Despite this, engagement levels remain low and employers struggle to locate appropriate STEM applicants.
Some research would suggest it is not just a lack of STEM-specific skills that are hindering Australia’s ability to remain competitive, however, and despite the unquestionable need to encourage more STEM focus in schools and universities, we may require additional focus on what is normally seen as a completely separate entity – the arts.
Changing the acronym to STEAM shifts the focus to arts education existing in conjunction to - or completely blended with - STEM studies. This could encourage creativity and design, drive more engagement and interest in STEM, while also enhancing cognitive abilities required for science and technology-focused subjects.
As the STEM skills gap is concentrated mostly around technology, with a growing need for systems engineers, developers, data scientists and inventors, the broad inclusion of science notes those with scientific interests and insights will excel in technology and engineering. With arts, the same rule applies.
“While STEM alone needs to be a focus because we are lacking in participation levels, let’s not forget about the creativity side of things,” says Kee Wong, chair of the the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), which has rallied for more government action on the skills crisis.
“STEAM is probably a more well-rounded approach to look at the whole issue. Whatever students do in terms of STEM, if we have that something to instil in them the creativity and the passion, then art and STEM are highly complementary.
“In fact, I think anyone who is artistic and does STEM will be a better STEM leader than someone who lacks creativity.”
It’s a sensible statement if we consider STEM leaders of the future will not only have to carry out their everyday work remit, but also continually innovate to remain competitive.
To attract and mould these future STEM leaders, the focus from universities and industry on simply increasing the take up of technical subjects “misses the mark”, says Rob Hillard, managing partner - consulting, Deloitte.
“It’s not just about technical skills, when you go over human history and you look at contributions across a whole range of fields, you can't get past the need to be able to have a level of insight in the arts subjects ... It is in the adjacency, where you bring the two things together, that's where the greatest innovation occurs,” he says.
STEAM across the ages
The relationship of arts to innovation has a long history, with obvious examples such as Leonardo Da Vinci, whose many scientific discoveries benefited greatly from his artistic interests, and vice versa.
In the 1990s, biochemist Robert Root-Bernstein researched the biographies of 150 eminent scientists and uncovered numerous examples of arts and science aligning. Galileo was a poet and literary critic, Einstein was a keen violin player, and Samuel Morse painted portraits.
Steve Jobs regularly pointed out that the biggest difference between Apple and all the other computer companies is that Apple always tried to marry art and science, with the original Mac team having backgrounds in anthropology, art, history, and poetry.
All this considered, it’s surprising that arts and STEM are so often seen as two entirely separate entities, rather than two crucial sides of the same coin.
“There are so many parallels between the arts and sciences, I’m not sure why we continue to think of them in silos,” says Wendy Woon, the Edward John Noble Foundation deputy director for education, the Museum of Modern Art.
“Both require deep and careful observation as a starting point, curiosity, experimentation with materials and processes.”
Woon has worked tirelessly to promote the application of digital techniques to arts education and engagement initiatives spanning from technologically advanced artistic displays and workshops, to online courses.
“Artists make observations, do research, pose questions and hypotheses... and create bodies of work that articulate possible solutions to their questions. Both the arts and the sciences deal with ambiguities— questioning, exploring, seeing from varied perspectives and trying to draw conclusions,” Woon says.
The IT worker of the future will require a multi-faceted and diverse mindset that possesses not only strong technical ability, but the interpersonal skills and creative thinking also sought by employers.
Deloitte’s 2015 Tech Trends report also encourages a new blending of art and STEM, with the latest emphasis on design and innovation creating a need for graphic designers, user experience engineers, cultural anthropologists, and behavioural psychologists.
“Designing engaging solutions requires creative talent; creativity is also critical in ideation — helping to create a vision of reimagined work, or to develop disruptive technologies deployed via storyboards, user journeys, wire frames, or persona maps,” the report reads.
Design skills can underpin more agile, responsive techniques in IT management and delivery by instilling a culture focused on usability — not just concentrating on the look and feel of the user interface, but addressing the underlying architectural layers, according to the report.
Also attractive to IT leaders is the idea that design skills can better rally Dev and Ops around a shared vision of improved end-to-end design and end-user experience.
Employers, like universities, are too gung ho around recruiting work-ready young STEM graduates, which according to Hillard is “not doing anyone any favours”.
“If you can encourage people to do something broader than just STEM, the liberal arts provide a tremendous background for a huge range of technical skills,” he says.
Employers should stop focusing on finding a STEM worker with the exact technical skills to get the job done today, and instead be seeking the STEM worker that they want to work with the next decade, says Hillard.
“We’ve seen success in our company hiring based on passion. Whenever we’re faced with a choice between somebody who can technically answer each question of the job they’ll do on day one, or someone who is less job ready technically, but is absolutely fascinated by the discipline, we will always go to the latter," he says.
“If we can take people who have got a level of experience in music or have done English literature, then coming through enjoying those pieces with some of the technical backgrounds actually makes them a much more holistic professional.
“Music of course is highly mathematical in its very nature. Humanities and experience in human capital is very valuable. And the fact that most of the great artists of Renaissance were also scientists actually really inspires students. But today, employers see it as either or.”
Skills employers want
An Australian Industry Group report found more than 82 per cent of employers agreed that people with STEM qualifications are valuable to the workplace, even when their qualification is not a prerequisite for the role.
Employment in STEM-related fields has grown 1.5 times the rate of other jobs in Australia, and further, 45 per cent of employers expect their workplace requirements for STEM-qualified employees will increase over the next 5-10 years.
However, the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) has noted that there is currently little understanding over what specific STEM skills are actually wanted and used by employers.
This prompted the Chief Scientist’s office to conduct research into what specific skills Australian employers were looking for in STEM workers. This research found several key themes, including the importance of creativity and innovative thinking; and the need for people with STEM qualifications to effectively communicate and collaborate.
“The role of innovation is crucial to staying competitive within a global environment. Design thinking – the ability to pull together cognitive, behavioural, functional and technical skills to develop solutions to meet user needs – was seen as critical to the innovation process,” the report reads.
Employers on average rated interpersonal skills as the most important candidate attribute that they look for during recruitment – an area where most STEM qualified employees displayed slightly lower levels on average than their non-STEM counterparts.
The 2012 EU Skills Panorama report also noted that STEM graduates are considered under-skilled in the requisite personal and behavioural competencies expected of them, such as team-working and communication skills, as well as product development and customer service.
“Some participants speculated that in many STEM fields, the focus tends to be on teaching and encouraging critical or logical thinking, which in many instances is a narrowing of facts, assumptions, and ideas into conclusions; whereas creative thinking requires a broadening of thinking to consider alternate possibilities and solutions,” the Chief Scientist report reads.
While the benefit of art to creative thinking is palpable, the strong demand for STEM workers with better communication and collaboration capabilities can also be improved through a background in the arts, with students who have drama training in high school often scoring higher in social aptitude.
Research from the American Alliance for Theatre & Education (AATE) revealed a consistent causal link between performing texts in the classroom and the improvement of a variety of verbal skills. Further, the performance of Shakespeare texts can improve students’ understanding of other complex texts, including science and math material.
These findings are just one of many that suggest a combination of arts and STEM studies not only helps to produce multi-talented STEM workers, but that exposure to arts education can actually improve the STEM capability of students.
Art creates better STEM leaders
There is interesting research into how arts training can impact the brain that suggests exposing children to arts subjects wouldn’t only foster creativity, but also create deeper engagement in other subjects, better retention of content, and a greater emotional involvement in the learning process.
Between 2001 and 2005, US students involved in drama performance scored an average of 65.5 points higher on the verbal component of the SAT, and 35.5 points higher in the math component, than their non-arts classmates, according to College Entrance Examination Board records.
The Dana Foundation Arts and Cognition Consortium report, released in 2008, found “tight correlations” between arts training and improvements in cognition, attention, and learning based on multiple three-year studies across seven universities.
Training in the arts was found to potentially influence IQ due to a subsequent high state of motivation that increased attention span across all learning domains.
Numerous studies focused on the benefits of music, with links found between music training and the ability to manipulate information in both working and long-term memory, improved reading acquisition and sequence learning, and a child’s aptitude toward geometrical representation.
Studies around children learning to dance found the traditional mix of learning by physical practice as well as observation could lead to improved observational learning in other areas.
Samsung Electronics has recognised the benefits of dance as part of a diverse learning paradigm, having partnered with the Australian Ballet in 2013 to support its Out There program, which enables thousands of Australian students to access performance arts training to complement the current national curriculum.
“We strongly believe young Australians should have access to diverse, quality learning opportunities,” says Philip Newton, corporate VP for Samsung Electronics Australia. “Samsung focuses on STEM education, but we believe diverse education opens up possibilities and accelerates discoveries.
“We’ve heard from many different schools that they do not have the resources to teach performing arts to the level they would like and that their students do not have access to these cultural experiences. The Australian Ballet's Out There program helps bridge this divide.”
Further, abandoning regular artistic practice for the sake of enhanced STEM focus could mean creativity in later life proves far more challenging.
Root-Bernstein and his wife, Michele, also conducted research into the minds of inventive people and showed that while creativity can be enhanced through the exercise of thinking tools, not exercising the creative half of the brain will lead to atrophies, just as failure to do physical exercise does for muscles.
Avoiding a creativity crisis
With the continued focus on creativity, the necessary push for more STEM capability should not come at the expense of the arts training if we also hope to see increase entrepreneurialism.
In 2010, it was discovered that American creativity had been falling steadily since 1990 based on a review of scores from the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT), while the US continues to fall to on the Bloomberg Innovation Index, now at sixth place and down three points from 2014.
Though Australia placed 13th for the second year in a row, our creativity levels are quite high. Research from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) in 2012 found that overall, Australian students performed above average in creative problem-solving assessment, and are well equipped to apply their skills and knowledge to solve challenging problems.
One of the few countries that performed significantly higher than Australia – and most other countries – was South Korea, which has secured ‘most innovative country’ in the Bloomberg Index for a few years running.
Like other nations, South Korea has kept a strong focus on building participation and achievement in STEM, but its main program incorporates the arts to strengthen the focus on creativity and design. The STEAM program was designed after students were not finding the STEM curriculum engaging, nor was it addressing the objective of creativity that was necessary to innovation.
These more student-centred approaches are being employed without diluting content. An ACOLA report into STEM country comparisons found Korea is especially concerned about teaching strategies and approaches, and is determined to improve the creativity, artistic and innovative flair of students in STEM employment.
As currently only 16 per cent of our university graduates have STEM qualifications, while participation in secondary school mathematics and science continues to decline, a good recommendation from the ACOLA report is that Australian educators and policymakers take a leaf out of South Korea’s book and consider the inclusion of the visual and performing arts alongside the orthodox STEM-related programs.
“We live in an increasingly visual culture and we need to be more synthetic in our understanding of the interrelatedness of the world rather than a linear, siloed approach. We need to embrace a more fulsome notion of education – more connected, more process-oriented – an organic structure that embraces the arts,” says Woon.
“Whether it is science or art, people need to be able to think critically about what they see and create, consider multiple perspectives in interpreting them… these will be essential skills for the future.”
Embracing ongoing education
For current STEM workers out there seeking to enhance their design and problem solving capabilities, fortunately creativity may still be trained in adults. It’s believed that practicing creative problem solving activities every day can allow people to eventually recruit their brain's creative networks quicker, and better, as long-term efforts can gradually alter our neurological pattern.
University of New Mexico neuroscientist Rex Jung believes approximately 60 per cent our creativity comes from environmental influences, while only 40 per cent from our genetics, meaning all people have the capacity to develop creative thinking.
It’s worth considering then that businesses also make efforts to incorporate the arts and creativity within their organisation, whether it is something casual like a regular trivia night for employees, a company choir or dance group. They should of course also encourage more formal collaboration and creative problem solving of real-world problems across the company, which in turn will lead to varying levels of innovation.
Likewise, Hillard believe STEM should be a lifelong education and not something we can draw from schools and universities alone, as often those skills need to be applied to roles and organisations not necessarily considered STEM-based due to the growing prevalence of technology.
“We’re not doing enough to make sure that everybody has access to a number of subjects in ongoing education, post-university, to develop their skills – not just technical job-ready skills but broad science skills, broad technology skills, broad engineering skills and broad mathematics skills,” he says.
“The border between education and work is going to keep blurring and lifelong education will absolutely become the norm, and the beauty of STEM is that it's something people should just be continuing to grow more interested in as it becomes a larger part of the world we live in. “