Taking the STEAM out of STEM
On cutesy acronyms, creepy chatbots, and the integrated thinking we all need to practice (because it doesn't come naturally, except maybe to Leonardo da Vinci)
The STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- form a tidy little bundle that tend to advance the same general set of technical interests, require similar forms of investment, and face common problems with recruitment from historically under-represented populations. That they can be agglomerated under a convenient acronym is convenient, but not necessary.
■ What is not only unnecessary but downright counterproductive is the effort to shoehorn an "A" in there, converting STEM to STEAM by adding "arts" to the cluster. It may sound clever, but the effect is dilutive.
■ This isn't to say that STEM subjects should be divorced from the arts. To the contrary: An element of the humanities is absolutely, positively essential to the successful promotion of the STEM fields. Without integrating humanistic thinking into the process, technically skilled individuals run the grave risk of doing things that are negligent, harmful, or even hazardous to their fellow human beings. But recognizing that STEM topics are different from the arts is critical to bridging the gap.
■ Take, for instance, the case of the "chatbot companion" promoted in online advertising. One such bot is being promoted with a headline that literally says "The AI companion who cares". But a chatbot is not a "who" and has literally zero capacity to "care". Advertising otherwise is an act distressingly disconnected from the human impact of technology.
■ It's entirely understandable that some people have a hard time making friends and cultivating relationships. But the humane thing to do isn't to offer a completely false promise of a synthetic "companion who cares". A humane thing to do would be to program an app to guide lonely people through the process of making real friends -- with human beings.
■ But just as people who are attracted to the STEM fields need to be trained in the humanities in order to become well-rounded practitioners, so must people who are attracted to the humanities be trained in technology and the sciences. Recognizing that these fields are fundamentally different from one another highlights the contrasts, which should serve to place emphasis on what's missing. Once we recognize that something is not necessarily an obvious fit, we can make conscious choices to try to make up for the void.
■ Cramming "arts" into a conjoined appellation with STEM makes it appear as if they are the same, and that is misleading. They are different, and historically have been; the rarity of a case like Leonardo da Vinci, both an extraordinary scientist and an extraordinary artist, is the exception that proves the rule. A polymath like Leonardo stands out because the fullness of the STEAM subjects integrated themselves seamlessly in his very special mind.
■ For the rest of us, the different fields do not fit quite so intuitively together, and there is a need for conscious effort to make sure that the scientists don't overlook the humanities, and that the artists don't fail to learn math. This conscious integration takes work. It doesn't happen because of a cute acronym, and it certainly won't happen unless we realize there are differences to integrate.