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From STEM to STEAM: The art of creative engineering

Holly Cave, PE Team

The half-scale version of Sentius Tectonicus was created by artist John O’Rourke before the full-size sculpture was built for Hadrian’s Wall
The half-scale version of Sentius Tectonicus was created by artist John O’Rourke before the full-size sculpture was built for Hadrian’s Wall

Artist v scientist. Many argue this separation is artificial, and does nothing to solve the problems of our modern world, but are things shifting?

Getting young people interested in STEM is notoriously difficult… But what if we were to drop an ‘A’ in there – and make it STEAM?

‘A’ here stands for art. The argument goes that adding art to engineering education teaches the kind of risk-taking approach and creative problem-solving that can be applied to the world’s biggest issues, such as climate change and healthcare. Indeed, several engineering schools and higher education institutions, such as the University of Iowa and Brown University, have just started to introduce creative arts courses into their programmes.

Steve Jobs once stated in an interview that “technology alone is not enough,” and ensured throughout all his companies, from Apple to Pixar, that scientists, programmers and technologists must work together with artists and designers. “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing,” he said.

The central idea of STEAM is that by working together, artists and engineers can effect change for the better. “The world isn’t working for many people at the moment,” says Gavin Wade, director of Eastside Projects, a Birmingham-based public arts scheme. “Artists, engineers, and technologists should be at the forefront of demanding change. We should be instructing our politicians how to make it work with art thinking, engineering thinking and ecologically sustainable technologies.”

Artist Laura Couto Rosado with her scientific partner James Beacham at the Cern particle physics research centre (Credit: Cern)
Artist Laura Couto Rosado with her scientific partner James Beacham at the Cern particle physics research centre (Credit: Cern)

But is it art?

The original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci, was not only an engineer, inventor and mathematician, but also a botanist, anatomist, and the leading artist of his age. But how closely are engineering and the arts linked in today’s world? And can engineers benefit from having some understanding of the potential for creative, artistic approaches to their work?

Curated by Wade and the team at Eastside Projects, the Birmingham Big Art Project is well underway, with the aim of installing the “most ambitious public artwork the city has ever experienced.” Susan Philpsz’s Station Clock was recently announced as the winning proposal. This large-scale “singing” clock will cover the ground just outside Curzon Street Station where the high-speed HS2 rail link is set to be built. The digits of the clock face will be replaced with the twelve tones of the musical scales, from A to G sharp. Philpsz will record 1,092 voices – representing the full diversity of people living in Birmingham today – and those voices will ring out on the hour, every hour, 24/7.

The history of Birmingham has a powerful tradition of an interplay between artists and engineers. The city’s coat of arms features two figures – one representing industry and one representing art as the defining forces at work in its identity. Created partly in response to the work of The Lunar Society in the late 1700s, the city’s coat of arms reminds its citizens that artists and engineers working together created minting processes, carbonation technologies, plating and all manner of inventions and breakthroughs. “Culture is not something separate from everything else,” says Wade. “Art is not something separate. It is something in the layers of a city. It is in the thinking of our city. I believe that engineers can learn a lot from the methodical and wilful thinking of artists.”

For Conrad Shawcross, a young British artist who has created an impressive, 14-metre-high angular stack of weathered steel teetering over the entrance to the Francis Crick Institute in London, engineering and art have always been interlinked. His sculpture, Paradigm, unveiled in 2016, is a “beacon for progress and endeavour,” one which acknowledges fallibility, the boundaries of science, and the fragility of engineering.

Relationship to the artist

Structure Workshop was involved from the early competition stage and played a pivotal role in the design: from the development of geometry through to the structural solutions; detailed FE analysis, prototyping, testing and the specification of both fabrication and installation processes.

he ArcelorMittal Orbit is an engineering feat and Britain's largest piece of public art (Credit: iStock)
The ArcelorMittal Orbit is an engineering feat and Britain's largest piece of public art (Credit: iStock)

Sparks of inspiration

Technology is a fundamental force in art,” says Shawcross, “but engineering has always been a fundamental aspect of artistic endeavour, since its genesis.” For the past decade, he has worked very closely with the structural engineer, Pete Laidler of Structure Workshop Ltd. Laidler’s company are involved in Shawcross’s projects from the early stages and play a pivotal role in the design and development of structural solutions, fabrication and installation of his artworks. “There is a huge amount of collaboration and crossover,” explains Shawcross. “There’s a little bit of a frustrated engineer in me, and a little bit of a frustrated artist in Pete!”

This sentiment is echoed by Gavin Wade: “Artists and engineers have long worked together and learned from each other,” he says. “Artists are often the first to use new technologies, if they didn't invent them, whether it is the technology of carving a stick, or producing a colour from a chemical.”

Artist John O’Rourke, based in the north east of England, recently unveiled his latest sculpture – a 2.8-metre-high statue of a Roman centurion soldier, commissioned to mark the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall, at Segedunum Roman Fort in Wallsend. He wanted to create a figure which adopted industrial materials and fabrication methods to forge links to the area’s history of shipbuilding.

Although O’Rourke doesn’t see any clear-cut divisions between engineers and artists, he does note that there are differences. “There’s far more than manual skill and dexterity involved in both art and engineering,” he says, “As an artist, I look at many engineering structures as amazing, beautiful and inventive forms, and often have a reasonable understanding of how they are made.”

Even the most scientifically and technologically-focussed communities are reaping the rewards of bringing art and artists into their midst. The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) is most famous for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) buried deep beneath the border of France and Switzerland. Here, sub-atomic particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light, helping to reveal the secrets of the fundamental structure of the universe. Arts at CERN is a leading programme that’s been running at the particle physics research centre since 2011, bringing together prominent scientists, engineers, and artists “to inspire each other in new creative expressions,” as described by Charlotte Warakaulle, CERN’s director for international relations.

The COLLIDE Artists Residency Award is the flagship programme of Arts at CERN. This year’s participating artists will spend up to three months working closely with the centre’s researchers. Most recently, artist Laura Couto Rosado has been working directly with CERN physicist James Beacham on projects including Flavourful Objects, which explores design principles inspired by fundamental particles and the way these are described by physicists. Rosado and Beacham aim to create a vocabulary and methodology that will help designers and artists to explore particle physics in future. “I’m lucky to have James as my scientific partner,” says Rosado. “He’s open and attentive; he suggests ideas for me to explore and provides me with the tools to develop my project.”

The Dragon Bridge located in Vietnam won an engineering award in 2016 (Credit: Getty)
The Dragon Bridge located in Vietnam won an engineering award in 2016 (Credit: Getty)

Creative thinking

So, how can we cross cultures and cultivate these links between engineering and the arts? STEAM proponents believe that integrating art into the curricula of engineering courses can help students learn to think more innovatively, communicate with others in more innovative and effective ways, and learn that artistic approaches can serve practical functions throughout life.

In 2013, Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the US was one of the first places to champion integration of the arts with STEM to develop students’ creativity and critical thinking. The intention has always been to “develop a comprehensive educational model that will better prepare future generations to compete in the 21st century innovation economy,” says Jaime Marland, RISD director of public relations.

“Making the case for creativity continues to be at the heart of the RISD-led movement to promote STEAM,” adds Babette Allina, Head of Government Relations & External Affairs at RISD. “It has succeeded because it’s been driven by student interest, and by teachers throughout the United States – and soon after in Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom – who know that the practical application of interdisciplinary, project-based learning is a familiar methodology that works.”

Schemes include a dual degree program, in which participants study art and design at RISD alongside technology or science at Brown University. Students have flexibility to mix and match disciplines – maths with sculpture, for example – and can graduate after five years with a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

The RISD STEAM student group continues to be very active, and has helped guide students at other institutions, including Harvard and Yale, to form their own groups. The “STEM to STEAM” movement across the States has seen leading science and technology universities create arts programmes. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, created the interdisciplinary Media Lab back in the 1980s, and built the Center for Art, Science & Technology in 2012. “MIT has always incorporated the arts as a conduit of innovation,” says Leila Kinney, Executive Director of arts initiatives at the Institute. “The arts are essential to the creative environment of a research institution renowned for science and engineering, and play a powerful role in fostering flexible thinking, disciplined collaboration, and creative departures from the norm.”

Miami's Brutal Workout VI installation is all about art and fitness
Miami's Brutal Workout VI installation is all about art and fitness

The non-believers

Professor Michael Lye coordinates RISD’s ongoing working relationship with the US space agency NASA. This year, spacesuits designed by a group of Industrial Design students alongside NASA engineers have been put to the test. Throughout the summer, the suits have been worn by astronauts taking part in the HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) mission, which seeks to replicate the environment they might one day encounter on Mars. The team’s aim was to create a suit that would be comfortable and simple to take on and off. The modular nature of the suit means that it can be easily adapted to fit a wide variety of body shapes and heights, and damaged parts can be easily swapped, cleaned and fixed.

Forging links between engineering companies and institutions and design students has benefits for both groups, and for the final product. “Being design students rather than engineers, they bring an interesting perspective to designing for space,” says Lye. “Engineers are making suits that are strong and safe and meet the technology requirements, but somewhere along the way, the person wearing the suit got lost.”

However, not all those in the education sector believe that STEAM is the way forward. Like many others, Gary S. May, Chancellor of the University of California, Davis, is concerned that formally integrating the arts into traditional science and technology education paths will dilute the original message of the STEM movement when we still need more students to choose these subjects and enter this section of the workforce: “In my view, STEM should stay as it is,” he wrote in a 2015 essay, “because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents – and that concept is more important than ever.”

Much traditional STEM education involves art in topics such as product design, social studies and history. So, are we doing our engineers a disservice by suggesting that the arts need to become a formalised part of their training? Self-described artist-engineer B.E. Johnson, also based in California, thinks it is unfair to suggest that most engineers struggle with creativity or vision: “Some of the best engineers I know are artists in the way that they approach their craft, whether they realise it or not. They think about their project or machine in a fluid or abstract way, while weighing up the possibilities.”

But STEAM proponents argue that their approach is instrumental in driving positive change. In the UK, a 2016 Nesta report found that integration of the arts into STEM has many positive impacts. In particular, the report stated that companies which deploy STEM alongside art and design skills experience faster employment and sales growth than STEM-only firms. They are also more innovative. Such “STEAM businesses” make up only 11 per cent of the population of non-micro firms, but generate 22% of employment and 22% of turnover, perhaps due to their heightened capacity for innovation.

“Our alumni are activating change and advancement around the globe in every sector – education, healthcare, government, technology and non-profits, in addition to art and design,” says RISD’s Marland. As with so much else, education could be the key player in effecting cultural change for the better.

Susan Philipsz's singing clock will cover the ground outside Birmingham's cursor Street Station (Credit: Susan Philipsz)
Susan Philipsz's singing clock will cover the ground outside Birmingham's cursor Street Station (Credit: Susan Philipsz)

Leonardo da Vinci: the original artist-engineer:

Skip back to the Renaissance, and lines between the humanities and the sciences were almost invisible.

  • Made 500 sketches of flying machines and the nature of flight
  • Work for the Duke of Milan included plans for numerous “war devices”, such as cannons and armoured vehicles
  • An accomplished lyre player, he was first presented at the Milanese court as a musician
  • First to explain that the sky is blue because of the way air scatters light
  • Drew designs for diving bells and underwater exploration
  • 15 surviving paintings can be attributed to Leonardo.
  • First to outline the principles of perspective of clarity (distant objects progressively lose their separateness and fade) and perspective of colour (distant objects progressively fuse into a uniform tone of grey).
* Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
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