Arts are valuable, but can we afford them when STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) powers the world?
In today’s society interacting with STEM is unavoidable. With 94% of adults in the UK using a mobile phone, STEM is not only improving our communications but is changing the way we work, rest and travel, it’s saving lives and it’s saving the world. Technology however, doesn’t create itself (well not yet anyway), to continue to make leaps and bounds in improving society we need engineers, scientists and mathematicians. We need them to innovate, build and discover our future. It’s not just our society either, with world issues such as global warming and food security becoming major concerns, STEM has never been more important. This implies more effort and funding should be provided for STEM subjects compared to the arts.
Efforts have successfully been made into encouraging students into STEM careers with 51% of 11-16 year olds saying they would consider an engineering job in 2015 and apprenticeship numbers are at their highest in a decade. Unfortunately, the supply still falls well below the demand with a deficit of 20,000 graduate engineers annually and nearly 40% of firms having difficulties recruiting the STEM staff they require.
The UK’s economy benefits greatly from a STEM focused workforce. STEM careers tend to be more beneficial to the society as a whole, providing medical health care, transport infrastructure and so much more. Engineering contributed to 26% of the UK’s GDP in 2015 with all creative industries contributing to just 4.5%. When other STEM industries were included, this GDP contribution increases significantly. Furthermore, with every engineering job supporting 1.74 other jobs, surely it is obvious that the country wants to encourage STEM over arts?
STEM needs to be encouraged and supported even more than what is currently being done. This means not only investing more into the teaching and availability of the subjects, but changing public opinion of the topics. There is a prejudice against STEM for school level students with the subjects often seen as nerdy and uncool. This needs to be addressed and a strategy for this is to encourage more young, relatable STEM professionals to give talks and inspire students.
It could be argued that more of the educational budget should be focused towards STEM. Better resources in classrooms and a competitive salary for teachers could lead to a better STEM education, especially as STEM professionals get paid far more in careers outside of education. It is clear that STEM careers give more back to society than the arts, and the division of the education budget should reflect this.
Where Science ends, Art begins
However, according to The Times, in 2005 the UK government started a £25 billion scheme to encourage primary schools to focus more on maths and english. Networks of primary schools were encouraged to share maths expertise, for an additional £2,000 of funding per annum. If increased exposure to maths from a young age encouraged students to pursue STEM careers, it could be assumed that there would have been an increase in the number of students enrolled in STEM courses at a university level.
Those students in year 6 and below when the scheme was implemented would have begun attending university in September 2015. From then on, a spike in the number of students enrolled in STEM subjects would have been expected. This was not the case. There has been a steady increase in the number of students enrolled in STEM subjects since 2003, but no spike that could be credited to the increased funding in 2005.
The focus on maths clearly does not have the desired effect on students, so why exclude art subjects? Charles Negre once said “where science ends, art begins”. Art and STEM have always been linked and this evidence, along with the historical combination of the two areas of study, goes against the notion that art subjects are useless in a school curriculum.
Many historical engineers and mathematicians have been involved in the arts. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most influential artists of the 15th century, worked as a military engineer for 17 years and was the inventor of the flying machine amongst other innovations. Alexander Calder worked as an engineer before beginning a successful career as an artist. His engineering background influenced his art, such as mobiles requiring balance calculations. In these cases, and many more, it is clear that the two backgrounds support each other, so why in our modern society do we not encourage more of an open-minded approach to STEM and the arts?
The STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) movement, is an alternative to STEM. Championed by academics from Rhode Island School of Design, STEAM aims to drive innovative creative thinking in children through the incorporation of art into a STEM based curricula. Makey Makey, for example, are teaching school kids about basic electronics and coding by using bananas to build a drum kit or gaming controller. Further, STEAM uses artistic thinking to improve the understanding of concepts covered in STEM subjects. This promotes meaningful collaboration and improves unique problem solving skills.
It isn’t just the immediate benefits of a STEAM education that have been recognised. A study of STEM graduates from Michigan State University between 1900-1995 found that those who were exposed to the arts in their childhood, through participation in extracurricular activities such as music or photography, were eight times more likely to have their own businesses or have filed patents than the general public. Such studies support the idea that artistic, innovative thinking goes hand-in-hand with complex, entrepreneurial problem solving.
As a country we clearly need a more STEM focused workforce to be economically competitive on an international scale, but is it fair to push STEM subjects in education at the expense of the arts?