John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), wants to see an arts and science renaissance. That is, he wants to see artists and scientists working together hand-in-hand in a way not seen since the Renaissance, when the world’s greatest artists were also its greatest scientists — think Leonardo Da Vinci.
“With all that we have to address in the world — warming continents, fluctuating economies, monstrous cities — pursuing scientific questions in tandem with artists and designers may not seem like conventional wisdom. But given the unconventional nature and scale of the problems we face today, there is real value to be gained from collaborations that bridge the best talents we have in both the quantitative and qualitative domains. Artists and designers are the ones who help bring humanity front and center, make us care, and create answers that resonate with our values,” Maeda wrote in an editorial in Scientific American this July.
Recently, schools have moved to emphasize Science Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) as a means of preparing students to be leaders in a competitive global economy. Maeda is pushing the arts-science collaboration as part of an initiative by RISD called STEM to STEAM. He wants to make sure creativity and the arts do not get left behind. Creativity, after all, is an essential part of innovation.
Maeda will speak Wednesday, October 2, at 8 p.m. in Room 101 at the Friend Center, presented by Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Lewis Center. The event is free and open to the public. For more on STEM to STEAM, visit www.stemtosteam.org.
Maeda is a Japanese-American computer scientist and graphic designer who has long championed the integration of art and technology, especially since he became president of RISD in 2008. He is also the author of “The Laws of Simplicity,” a book published in 2006 about how people can simplify their lives.
Maeda earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and electrical engineering from MIT, followed by a PhD in design science from the University of Tsukuba Institute of Art and Design in Japan and an MBA from Arizona State University.
He believes the entire education system of the United States needs to be re-vamped in order to promote the arts alongside science and technology. Much of Maeda’s work in both his artistic and academic careers has been integrating art into computer interface designs.
Last year Maeda was interviewed by the University of California Institute for Research in the Arts and cited Apple Computers as an example of STEAM in action. “Steve Jobs’s work is the best example out there of a STEAM approach — the fact that technology and business and art and design intertwined to create something more human. I think STEAM helps you do that. When people talk about Apple, they say, ‘Steve Jobs was an example of someone who had great technology and business chops, and there was this design thing he kind of understood, but what is that thing?’ I believe that art can help the economy the same way that Apple has helped: by showing that making things more human makes them more desirable,” he told the publication.
Maeda, writing at Edutopia.org, has said there has already been some success in reuniting art and science at certain schools: “What does it mean to turn STEM to STEAM? The problem-solving, the fearlessness, and the critical thinking and making skills that I see every day in the RISD studios are the same skills that will keep our country innovating, and their development needs to start in the K-12 schools. Design creates the innovative products and solutions that will propel our economy forward, and artists ask the deep questions about humanity that reveal which way forward actually is. Sustaining arts education in its own right remains critically important. But equally important is taking a page from schools that have been successful at integrating the arts into STEM curriculum.
“Examples of both abound — from the Blue School in New York City, started by the founders of the Blue Man Group, to the Drew Charter School in Atlanta, whose curriculum is premised on STEAM. And we’ve just launched a website at RISD (stemtosteam.org) that shares the case studies we’ve collected on STEAM,” he wrote.
Maeda has not only advocated for including the arts in science and math, he has advocated for artists developing technical skills. As a professor at MIT in the late 1990s, Maeda says he often got flack for advocating that designers and artists write their own computer programs. “The prevailing sentiment was, ‘Why should artists learn to code when there are tools like Photoshop?’” he wrote in the Seattle Times. “Yet I had come to believe that we needed to treat the computer as a new kind of artistic material and to master it deeply.”
The STEM to STEAM project’s legislative efforts so far have been concentrated on getting legislators to sign up for the bipartisan “STEM to STEAM caucus,” which so far has 40 members, and promoting a resolution designating “STEM to STEAM month,” encouraging the inclusion of the arts in STEM funding for elementary, secondary, and higher education, and encouraging government entities such as the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts to develop a STEM to STEAM council of artists, designers, educators, business leaders, and government agencies to incorporate the arts into federal programs.
RISD has prepared a petition, available online at moveon.org, to urge lawmakers to get on board with the movement. As of this writing, they had 3,339 signatures out of a goal of 4,000.