The Innovation Curriculum: STEM, STEAM Or SEA?

Written by Henry Doss

 “Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn’t then it is of no use to us.” – Carlos Castaneda

Educating young people is the key to future innovation, so it’s probably a good idea to ask ourselves if we are on the right track. The question about what to teach, how to teach and why to teach is perennial, and thousands of years old. But the ongoing debate we are having about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math with a dab of the arts thrown in to pacify the Liberal Arts folks) seems a particularly strange one.  A curriculum that is driven by social policy may produce unintended outcomes . . . uniformity being one.

We seem intent on developing an education strategy that answers the wrong strategic question. Because technology and scientific advancement are so dominant in our modern lives, we have defaulted to the obvious question: “How do we prepare young people to be scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technologists?” The answer we give to that question is a STEM curriculum. But this answer generates a collective howl of dissent from educators about “the arts” and creativity and critical thinking. So, we expand the question to: “How do we prepare young people to be scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists, who can also be creative?” The answer we offer to that question is a STEAM curriculum. The scientifically inclined are happy and the Liberal Arts inclined are pacified.

But will either curriculum really foster innovative thinking, risk-tolerant leadership, bold thinking and an ability to trust and be trusted? Will either approach develop possibility and potential and promise in young people? Will either curriculum create a Renaissance of innovation in our society? Likely not, because the answers – STEM and STEAM – are incomplete answers to an incomplete question. Or, said a little differently, both STEM and STEAM initiatives emanate not from thinking about education, but from attempting brute force social engineering.

In the Renaissance (you know, the “real one,” a few hundred years back) there was a surge of disruptive technologies, cultural upheaval, profound religious and social conflict, and a dizzying rise in the dominance of science-based thinking. The result was arguably the most innovative period in all of human history. The core curriculum for study during this period was some mix of the guadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) and trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric), a very heavy dose of theory-based study of language, math and what we rather offhandedly refer to today as “critical thinking.”

One way to think about the innovative features of the Renaissance – and the curricular focus that was dominant then – is to think about three obvious features of the ecosystem: Science, Economics and Arts . . . or SEA. It was the diversified interplay of an expanding and vibrant capital system, an enthusiastic social exploration of the “new sciences” and a widespread passion for the arts that drove “innovation.” Rather than an overt, outcome-oriented curriculum aimed at producing “workers,” the Renaissance curriculum developed – for lack of a better term – sensibility. It was based on the notion of developing the intellect for substantial expression and it helped to fuel “big thinking” – the food of innovation. English: The Gates of Paradise-Solomon Ghiberti was an innovator in an innovation ecosystem.

Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, commissioned in 1425 for the North Doors of the Florence Baptistery, is a great example of innovation and the interplay between diverse cultural elements. The creation of this masterpiece required capital (lots of it, which came from a vibrant cloth trade, courtesy of the Cloth Importers Guild); science and technology applied to metallurgy and various construction arts; and, of course, a profound artistic sensibility. Just to name a few of the more overt benefits, over the 25 years Ghiberti labored on these doors, the project: created many jobs in his studio; drove innovation in the science and technology of bronze casting (which would find use across multiple other, more practical, applications); and left an artistic legacy that has endured for almost 600 years. None of this happened because of policy wonks analyzing labor statistics and concluding that there was a need for an emphasis on metallurgy.

None of this happened because the pedagogically inclined sought to teach “bronze door skills.” Nor did any of this happen because of an ideologically driven capital system. It happened because of idealism and aspiration, which serendipitously led to a world of practical applications.

The difference between then and now may be simple. When we craft educational strategies to address purely economic outcomes – jobs, manufacturing, growth and so on – we draw constraints around innovation. It’s not that the areas of study or the curriculum itself are wrong, so much as we are studying for the wrong reason. If our curriculum is aimed at preparing young people to do a job, how likely is it to prepare them to create jobs? If what we want in the world is innovation, we would do well to relax a bit on the data-driven thinking that dominants pedagogy, and let the world be a little more risk-oriented, random, and joyful.

If what we want is a world that is creative, future-oriented and progressive, maybe we should be a little less heavy handed with the outcome-driven thinking that drives policy. And if what we really want is a generation of happy people, maybe we should rediscover the notion that idealism is the foundation of pragmatism, and let idealism be the platform on which education is built. And perhaps we should think about SEA – Science, Economics and Arts — as a model for our 21st century innovation curriculum.


About the Author
Henry Doss is a student, musician, venture capitalist and volunteer in higher education. His firm, T2VC, builds startups and the ecosystems that grow them. His university is UNC Charlotte.

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