Maeda: to stoke American innovation, turn 'STEM' to 'STEAM'

Pursuing STEM education initiatives is folly without including design in the discussion, according to RISD president John Maeda. Here's how it can help lift American innovation.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

You can't talk about innovation in America without including design, according to Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda.

So when officials and educators look to STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- education, they ought to include the arts, too.

It's simple, really: add an "A" and you're already building STEAM, so to speak.

"We've always distinguished our products with design or art somehow," Maeda said during a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. last month. "[The 'American look' came to be] because we made it look American."

Another way of looking at it is to consider that humanists must be a part of the equation. Vast and complex technical systems may be powerful, sure, but they can't spark change without connecting to -- instilling desire in, really -- the people that will use them.

Enter designers.

"By making STEAM, what happens is that great science happens because of great creativity," Maeda said during the briefing.

The challenge is that such things are very, very difficult to measure. While we can easily show an uptick in engineering jobs in the U.S. as a positive result of STEM education, it's much harder to attribute a specific amount of success of, say, the Apple iPod to its design.

"Society is so focused on measurement," Maeda said in a 2010 interview with The Guardian. "It's awkward and sad. Singapore or Japan are highly known test-taking countries focused on science and engineering, yet are desperate to find innovation. And where are they looking? They're looking to the West for new ideas."

To amend the effort, congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) has proposed H.R. 319, a bill to include art and design in STEM initiatives and form a council to oversee how the fields could be incorporated into existing STEM programs.

It is currently under review by the House Education and the Workforce and House Science, Space, and Technology committees.

Here's a video of Maeda's speech, which was published online this week:

Photo: Max Krupka/RISD/Flickr

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