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Art and Design Are Not Luxuries: #STEM to #STEAM

March 27, 2014

Bran Ferren is defined by a long series of descriptors.  Here is what appears in Wikipedia:

a technologist, artist, architectural designer, vehicle designer, engineer, lighting and sound designer, visual effects artist, scientist, lecturer, photographer, entrepreneur and inventor.

Some list!  When you watch his TED Talk, you will see why he could easily be defined in this way.  He references his role models, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin, the ultimate associative thinkers.  He speaks the time when he first saw the Pantheon and the life-changing influence it had on him at a young age.  No doubt his upbringing impacted the journey he took with his life.  His parents were artists and some of his important relatives were engineers.  So he was exposed to associative thinking early on in life.  Today he is the Chief Creative Officer of Applied Minds, which is a firm he co-founded that supplies organizations worldwide with help in the technology and design.

In his talk, he speaks about the vital connections between art, design and engineering.  Raised with artists and engineers, he learned how to connect ideas.   As a child he was encouraged to tinker and explore.  He comments that he learned about engineering, not at school, but tinkering at home.  Through other experiences his parents offered him, mostly on vacations, he learned about the connections between history, art and design.   As someone who grew up in Milwaukee and would head down to the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago quite frequently, Ferren references his endless wanderings through the London Science Museum, a place where he learned to appreciate the history of science and technology.

He then takes us on a journey through the Pantheon, “a temple for all the gods.  As a keen observer, he noticed the Pantheon was a cool and dark place.  The occulus, which piqued his curiosity, was a symbol, as well as an architectural focal point in his study of the intersection of art, design and engineering.  Drawn to the intricacies of the ceiling, he references Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome.  Fuller, another one of those “big thinkers,” was interested in the applications of technology, art, and design to building efficient, comfortable, and sustainable shelters.

In Ferren’s talk, he illustrates how the Pantheon’s dome is unique, “largest un-reinforced concrete dome every built.  He points out that it took “miracles” to make it possible.  The invention of super strong concrete and the know how to vary the concrete’s density as the designers moved up the dome.  This culminates in the occulus, an open window into the heavens.  The shaft of light through coming through the occulus was beautiful, and was part of the design.  The designers recognized that light was needed to appreciate the beauty inside the Pantheon.

The big takeaway from Ferren’s talk is that art, design, engineering, science, and math (STEAM) all work together.  He says:

I learned this via experience and the visit to the Pantheon.  These worlds were not incompatible.  When you combined their powers you got amazing things.

He references schooling in the following thought:

In school all of these subjects are treated as separate entities.   My teachers told me I had to get serious about and focus on one or the other discipline.  Urging me to specialize I learned to appreciate those folks who were not specialists, Michelangelo, Leonard da Vinci, and Ben Franklin.

To create these rare game-changers (Pantheon), you to have “five miracles” and rare individuals that are able to cross the boundaries of art, design and engineering.  These rare individuals notice when others have brought some of the miracles to bear.

They take other people’s obstacles and make them come to life, they are the individuals who bring together the miracles into the Pantheon

What is our modern-day Pantheon?  Ferren mentions the project to send a “man to the moon” and the smartphone, a device that he says will endure because it

connects everyone to both knowledge and each other

He then wonders whether another enduring object of the future will be the autonomous vehicle.  He sees it as:

  • saving tens of thousands of lives
  • conserving energy
  • addressing air pollution
  • cutting congestion
  • improving transportation

The five miracles needed to make autonomous vehicles the Pantheon of modern times are:

  1.  the GPS so you know where you are at any given time
  2. personal navigation systems that tell you where all the roads are
  3. wireless technology that keeps you in near continuous communication with high-performance computing networks and with other drivers so you can understand their intent
  4. HOV lanes as restricted roadways to test prototypes
  5. the sense recognition capability of the human driver to help onboard computers learn

I love when Ferren points out that “the ingredients for the next Pantheon are all around us.”  What we need are innovative thinkers (visionary people) to recognize them, people who have a multidisciplinary skill set (STEAM).   These people don’t just materialize from thin air, they have to be developed, supported and cared for as young people.  He mentions some qualities that these big thinkers, visionary people or associative thinkers need to possess:

  • the desire to discover their passions
  • the ability to work hard
  • the understanding that failure and perseverance are part of the journey to success
  • be able to identify and define their own role models
  • the belief in themselves (growth mindset)
  • the belief that anything is possible
  • the drive to define their own path even if different from that of their parents
  • the ability to pry themselves away from their modern miracles (smartphones, TV, video games, etc.) to appreciate the natural world and the beauty of design in nature.

Finally, he says that

art and design are not luxuries and not incompatible with science, technology and engineering.  They are essential to what makes us special.

My takeaway from Ferren’s talk was that schools have a significant responsibility to help students find their passion, develop the skill set needed to become “big thinkers,” and have the courage to create curricula that illustrate and foster the connections between disciplines.  We have to break down the silos that exist and help students become associative thinkers who can use science, technology, engineering, art and design and math to solve interesting and complex problems.  In addition, we have to help them develop the “habits of mind” and the communication skills, both oral and writing, to express themselves in creative ways.  The task is huge, but we can do it if we’re willing to challenge some of our traditions that keep us tied down, especially in the area of assessment and curriculum design.

What are your thoughts about these topics?

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