Adding a letter to that restrictive STEM acronym — A for Arts — opens new doors to learning.

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Ask any parent whether their child is interested in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields, and they’ll likely give you a hard yes or no. Educators are saying this restricted pool is part of the bigger problems facing the professional tech field today.

Take a look at the demographic breakdowns of any of our local tech companies, and you’ll likely notice the problem: the tech industry desperately needs to diversify. They also need more qualified workers in general. There were more than 50,000 open tech sector jobs in the Seattle area this August, according to international relocation company CapRelo.

A commonly suggested antidote to these issues prescribes increasing access and interest in STEM education for kids of all backgrounds. But how? Some local educators think they know — by adding a letter to that restrictive STEM acronym: A for Arts.

“Most people don’t fall into just one category as a techie or an artsy type,” says Lauren Bayer, Marketing Coordinator and Graphic Designer at Living Computers: Museum + Labs. “By combining technical content like engineering and calculations with a range of art forms, creativity and sensory engagement — you reach a whole new set of students.”

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Take the workshop offered at Living Computers called Intro to Arduino: it covers the basics of the Arduino microcontroller. How tech-geeky does that sound, right? Well, the workshop actually results in each student creating a Theremin, an electronic musical instrument, they can take home to play, which might make some kids who are more drawn to music than computers more likely to participate.

Thinking of STEM as STEAM isn’t just about widening the pool of future tech workers for diversity’s sake — it’s also about giving young people more opportunity to identify their personal strengths and passions by exploring a wider variety of subjects. Nina Arens, education coordinator at Living Computers, says workshops that incorporate artistic and creative angles into more traditional STEM projects are good examples of learning opportunities that expand access to fields that might otherwise feel closed off. “As teachers, we’re asking students to choose between their interests earlier and earlier. I like creating inquisitive programs for kids which don’t ask them to identify with one or the other.”

Local educator Jen Fox, who runs Fox Bot Industries, provides workshops and one-on-one classes in STEM subjects by developing custom curriculum and tutorials. Fox is also an advocate for incorporating Arts into STEM fields through project-based learning. She’s the one who runs the Arduino Theremin workshop at Living Computers.

A ‘Robot Mini Golf’ workshop teaches circuit basics by sending a silly BrushBot to tackle various obstacles.
A ‘Robot Mini Golf’ workshop teaches circuit basics by sending a silly BrushBot to tackle various obstacles.

“All of my workshop projects incorporate an artistic and creative element in addition to covering practical skills and knowledge in STEM fields,” says Fox. “For example, my ‘Introduction to Micro:Bit’ workshop involves simple prop-building, and my ‘Robot Mini Golf’ workshop teaches circuit basics through crafting a silly BrushBot to tackle various obstacles.”

While the STEAM acronym is one used mostly in education settings, the tech sector itself is embracing the idea behind it more and more.

Bayer points out that local companies from Tableau to Microsoft are showcasing more creative, artful projects within the STEM world. “More and more companies have realized that affinity with the arts can translate to new ideas, creative solutions and unique approaches,” she says. “Take a look at Tableau, who creates beautiful data visualization software that blends big data with artfully designed visual communication. Or Microsoft, who has continued to tweak their Surface tablets to target the creative professional.”

After all, a more diverse set of folks interested in the tech sector will lead to a better tech sector, says Bayer. “STEM fields from biology to computer science are utilizing art and design to bring more critical thinking and problem solving to their disciplines, because innovation needs creativity and STEM alone cannot give you that,” Bayer says.

When arts and creativity are embraced as an integral part of the STEM world, it’s a win-win for students, professionals and companies alike. “Today’s STEM professions are demanding more curious, multitalented people than ever before,” says Arens. “I would not discount an art student’s interest in science any less than I would an engineer. In the end, the world’s best solutions are going to come from teams of people that are open to thinking differently.”

Just consider one of our most famous and accomplished scientists in history: Albert Einstein, also a dedicated and talented musician, who began playing the violin at age five. “Einstein is a perfect example of why we need art and creativity in education,” says Fox. “He came into physics from a different perspective with different questions and was able to come up with solutions and thought experiments that conventionally trained physicists were unable to conceive because they were ‘stuck’ in the old world of thought.”

And who doesn’t want to be a little more like Einstein? STEAM-style workshops and classes can be found at organizations around Seattle, like Living Computers: Museum + Labs, Pacific Science Center, Ada’s Technical Books and King County Library System.

Living Computers: Museum + Labs provides hands-on experiences with computer technology from the 1960s to the present. From vintage systems and mainframes to the latest robotics and digital tools – discover technology at your fingertips. Come in. Geek out.