STEAMing ahead


54805-kettle_teaserI have spent an inspiring couple of days at the Association for Science Education Conference held here at Reading, picking up ideas (and freebies) for my outreach work. A strong theme emerging across several sessions that I have attended is the potential for learning opportunities that could be gained by working across traditional “arts” and “science” boundary. The newest additional to my acronym dictionary is therefore STEAM, being Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

Two sessions were particularly inspiring. Carole Kenrick @Lab13_Gillespie described her time as a “scientist/inventor” in residence in a state primary school, running Lab_13. Amongst the many fantastic activities and initiatives she set up during this time which included helping with curriculum and staff CPD, supporting students to run a science committee and doing some original research with the students that reached the national press, Carole also started a STEAM club. She described how this had evolved from Science Club, to STEM club and finally to STEAM, entraining and enthusing more and more children and parents as it made the transition. By bringing creative arts and science together through, for example, designing robot costumes, backpacks, growing and producing their own plant-based dyes and then using these to make textiles, children who “didn’t like science” began to involve themselves in it, and “science geeks” found new creative talents and skills. Carole has written this up for teachwire and as a blog.

The second STEAM themed session I attended was a keynote lecture by Marcus du Sautoy on The Art of Mathematics and the Mathematics of Art. In a well attended and thought provoking lecture, he focused on particular examples where mathematics is linked, either knowingly or unknowingly, to arts. Firstly music, considering the work of Oliver Messiaen who used repeats of rhythm and chords with different prime numbers in each to great effect in the piece he wrote for a prisoner of war camp quartet, “Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the end of time”) . Also in music, I was intrigued to discover that Indian musicians appear to have been aware of the Fibonacci sequence way before Fibonacci – it describes the number of patterns you can make with successive numbers of quaver beats for example. quaver

The connection between music and maths has often been made, but perhaps the other examples were less familiar. Firstly, in the visual arts, du Sautoy considered the success of Jackson Pollock paintings, attributed to them being fractals, and more than that, having similar fractal dimensions to those that we see in nature. This characteristic means that the level of complexity doesn’t change, no matter how much you “zoom in” to a Pollock painting, or in the natural world, trees. We also found out that to fake this you need to paint as a chaotic pendulum, one where the pivot moves as well as the pendulum. Apparently Pollock was able to do this through a natural combination of drunkenness and bad balance….

And finally to literature. The example used here was The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges. Slightly different from the other examples, it is thought that this was a deliberate attempt by Borges to try to understand Poincare’s mathematics via literature. It dectorusdescribes a library “that some call the universe” and discusses whether it is finite or not, some of the most challenging questions still being addressed in science today.

To my mind, science is already a creative subject. What could be more creative than dreaming up hypotheses, designing experiments, designing technology and equipment to deliver them and making visualisations of our data and results? Recent emphasis on novel visualisations of climate data for example have attracted much attention and featured in Olympic games opening ceremonies. But it is probably true that the majority of people beginning their science journey don’t see it this way. The explicit A in STEAM could help us to demonstrate that aspect and perhaps attract some new interest. It might also encourage the creative side in career scientists, although many of them already demonstrate this.

So, are you ready to put the A into STEM?