“A Call-to-Action in STEAM Education”

By S. Craig Watkins

Portrait of Black man in front of a tree.

Photo courtesy of S. Craig Watkins

The report produced by the National Endowment for the Arts, Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium, is a timely, albeit unlikely, intervention into the debate about the future of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) learning in the U.S. Among its many recommendations, I was especially struck by this one:

Educators and policymakers can support integration of the arts with STEM through educational initiatives inclusive of creative coding and other arts-based learning to bridge digital divides, promote digital literacy, and build essential 21st-century skillsets.

This recommendation is, in earnest, a call-to-action for those who build in-school and out-of-school learning opportunities for young people to expand what is possible in these spaces.

In recent years, the debate about education in the U.S. has focused overwhelmingly on STEM learning and, more specifically, the need to cultivate more talent in areas such as computer science, coding, and data science. This is a reflection of two things: first, the anticipated rise in the demand for STEM skills, especially computer-based skills, in our economy; and second, the pervasiveness of technology systems such as artificial intelligence (AI) and massive social platforms in our lives. And while we certainly need more talent in the occupations that engineer the technical features of these systems, there is a growing recognition that we also need individuals who are equipped to think about their social and ethical aspects.

The content and tone of current debates about technology are shifting. As we learn more about the weaponization of social media, the prevalence of data surveillance, and the injustices of algorithmic bias, questions about the design and ethical dimensions of technology are growing more urgent. But these questions are not the domain of the usual suspects in tech, such as computer scientists and software engineers. In fact, these questions require diverse forms of expertise, perspective, and the capacity to grapple with human complexity. It is in this context that the arts, and the digital arts in particular, are emerging as a vital component in our quest to resolve some of the current and future dilemmas associated with the increasing power of technology.

In my own work (see my 2018 book The Digital Edge), I have studied the educational spaces that seek to develop young people’s technology skills, including in-school and out-of-school settings. Not surprisingly, when STEM is the focus in educational settings, there is a tendency to privilege the idea that students should develop skills that are presumed to translate into employment, such as coding or computational thinking. The findings from the report strongly suggest that educators must develop a more expansive view of the kinds of skills needed in tomorrow’s STEM economy. In fact, the report makes a strong case for why educators must embrace the arts in their efforts to deliver high-quality and impactful STEM learning opportunities.

Any rethink of STEM education must explore how in-school and out-of-school settings can serve as hubs for a new kind of STEM literacy—let’s call it “STEAM literacy.” The “A” acknowledges the important role of the arts in STEM education. In my own research examining young people’s creation of a more inclusive innovation economy (see my 2019 book Don’t Knock the Hustle), I advocate for what I call the “innovation labs of tomorrow.” This a reference to a variety of physical spaces—community centers, libraries, schools, after-school programs, out-of-school programs—which offer marginalized populations access to the social, technological, and human capital that support innovation.

There is, of course, a long history of artists using the materials available to them to create stories, artifacts, and experiences that imagine more equitable and inclusive worlds. Today, a new generation of digital artists is using many forms of technology—everything from film and virtual reality to social media and algorithms—to make art that engages some of the most urgent questions about technology's impact on the modern world. These artists, as the report suggests, are an untapped resource in our quest to strengthen STEAM literacy in this country.

These new STEAM learning hubs should be designed to support young people’s ability to imagine the digital arts as a gateway to develop not only their technology skills but their creative, civic, and critical thinking skills, too. While the report identifies some of the inventive ways artists are leveraging technology, it also explains that the prospective sources of support for artists who use technology as a creative medium need significant improvement. These new community-based innovation labs could provide a space for digital artists to serve as instructors, guest speakers, or fellows who share their insights and skills with students. The opportunity to see how artists use their creative output to engage some of the most pressing questions regarding technology’s role in society will inspire the next generation of artists to find their voices and senses of agency.

As the list of philanthropic organizations and other funders seeking to boost STEM literacy grows, especially in marginalized communities, these funders could strengthen their efforts by supporting community-based organizations that feature the arts. A model like this will expand our notions of STEM to STEAM, foster greater community engagement in technology, and widen the opportunities for young people to develop their skills.

The adoption of digital artists and digital art to engage current debates about technology introduces whole new possibilities for how we define the future of STEAM literacy and the STEAM workforce. It is no longer enough to teach young people how to use technology, what some scholars refer to as “tools literacy.” It is equally important to teach them how to think critically about the ethical aspects and design features of technology that tracks our every move, sells our data to third-party interests, and scales historical biases via AI. This approach prioritizes sharpening the ability of students to ask probing questions about technology and, importantly, cultivate novel responses to those questions.

The majority of educators and researchers have overlooked the role that artists and art can play in the high-stakes conversation about STEM. We do so, however, at our own peril. There is a growing body of research from fields such as social psychology, sociology, and business that documents the crucial role that cognitive diversity—that is, different kinds of expertise and experiences—plays in cultures of innovation. In the case of technologies such as AI or facial recognition, we now understand that it is no longer appropriate to only have computer scientists and engineers in the room when these systems are being conceptualized and developed. Tech companies are beginning to include designers, social scientists, ethicists, and even artists in the process. Why? Because they have been forced to concede that these technology systems have grave societal consequences that require a depth of insight and imagination that reaches far beyond the competencies of a computer scientist or data scientist.

By inviting artists into such conversations about the conceptualization and design of technology, organizations have a greater likelihood of accessing the domains of expertise, imagination, and innovation that have been rendered marginal and mute. Further, this expands the scope of ideas and perspectives that can enrich our ability to think about how these technology systems can be built to mitigate rather than perpetuate bias and inequality. As a result, we leverage the digital arts and digital artists to support the development of young people’s technical, creative, and critical skills.

Artists bring unique points of view to the conversation about technology, emphasizing out-of-the-box thinking and the ability to center diverse perspectives and worldviews. STEAM innovation is about more than simply building shiny new things or intelligent systems. STEAM innovation also involves, for example, thinking about the human dimensions and impacts of how technology is designed and deployed.

In my own work, I've become interested in one focal question: how can technology systems like AI be designed through an equity lens? That is, how can we become more intentional in building technologies that are more oriented towards social and racial justice? Artists have been asking these kinds of questions for centuries. Thus, they are uniquely equipped to propose some compelling ideas and reflections that help us better understand not only who we are as a society today, but also who we want to be tomorrow.

S. Craig Watkins is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial Professor and founding director of the Institute for Media Innovation at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of six books and numerous articles that explore the intersections between race, technology, equity, and innovation. Watkins is currently working on a series of projects as the director for the Racial Justice Research Focus Area for Good Systems, a Grand Challenge at UT-Austin that examines the design of ethical artificial intelligence.