NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

STEAM and International Collaboration during a COVID-19 pandemic

In the summer of 2019 an Erasmus+ bid for research into STEAM in Higher Education, coordinated by Birmingham City University, was approved. At the time, the UK was also in protracted negotiations with the European Union, the impending exit having implications for educational exchange. This would prove to be a deeper issue to resolve.

By Nathan Cohen 

Problem solving in a STEAM environment. Photo credit: Heather Barnett

Problem solving in a STEAM environment. Photo credit: Heather Barnett

In the summer of 2019 an Erasmus+ bid for research into STEAM in Higher Education, coordinated by Birmingham City University, was approved. This included Universities in the UK (Birmingham City and UAL), Ireland (Dublin), Finland (Aalto), Germany (Dresden), the Netherlands (Amsterdam) and the Cultural Organization Ars Electronica (Austria). An ambitious program was proposed to investigate current STEAM approaches and practices and evolve new methodologies for the development of STEAM in Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), with three years to complete this.

At the time, the UK was also in protracted negotiations with the European Union, the impending exit having implications for educational exchange. This would prove to be a deeper issue to resolve, with early hopes among the British university sector that the UK would continue to be engaged with Erasmus dashed in the final deal.

As academics and researchers our focus is on the subject and how we can gain a deeper understanding and extend the boundaries of our collective knowledge. So, with these aspirations in mind and a clear program of Intellectual outcomes (IOs) to pursue, we set to planning for the implementation of the STEAM+ project ahead.

The arrival of the virus in Italy and the UK in the New Year and its increasingly rapid spread to Spain and other parts of Europe … it became apparent that the Erasmus+ project would need to continue online for at least some part of its duration. What was not initially anticipated was for quite how long this might be.

Our first meeting took place in early October 2019 in Amsterdam, where over three days hosted by the Amsterdam University, we considered and debated what STEAM approaches we have developed and implemented in our curricula. This led to some lively but respectful discussions particularly at the interface between how science and technology is interpreted and incorporated into art and design practices respectively. By the end of the meeting we had gained a deeper understanding of the complexities involved, our different approaches to applying this within our own institutions, and considered how we might plot a path to evolving future thinking in the context of the Erasmus+ project aims.

Plans to meet in the next academic year were discussed over the coming weeks as we continued our deliberations online, and then COVID-19 arrived. Initially, we had observed with increasing concern what was taking place in Wuhan in China. But the hope remained that, as earlier with SARS, the virus might be contained and the world spared from a wider pandemic. The arrival of the virus in Italy and the UK in the New Year and its increasingly rapid spread to Spain and other parts of Europe quickly put paid to any thoughts that we could avoid this, and so it also became apparent that the Erasmus+ project would need to continue online for at least some part of its duration. What was not initially anticipated was for quite how long this might be.

Online meetings have now replaced flights, hotels and sitting in rooms in universities (along with consumption of large quantities of sandwiches), so we can to some extent be pleased that this has dramatically reduced our carbon footprint.

As most of the project’s participants are also involved in some capacity as teachers and educators, what we were learning to do to adapt in this area in our own institutions could be applied to the research we are collectively undertaking. Interestingly, it took the Erasmus+ organization a bit longer to adapt their rules of engagement, particularly when it came to determining how funding could be reassigned given that we were not all travelling to meet. This is a key element of the Erasmus+ project and one of the significant costs it provides for.

MIRO has proved to be a valuable tool for remotely sharing ideas and accumulating material, while we are also developing a website to host the project outputs and provide a portal for researchers to access the content we are creating. At our regular Zoom and Teams meetings we can discuss the various output requirements and plan ahead and, although we are not in close physical proximity, we have developed a close rapport and the flexibility to meet as required.

The Erasmus+ schedule is specific in the demands it makes for structuring a project, including requirements for the types and frequency of international and local meetings. While we are observing the timetable to comply with these requirements, working online has also encouraged more contact between the key meetings leading to greater fluency and, to some extent, speed in decision making. It has also allowed us to compartmentalise the work with some aspects developed in smaller groups that feed into the larger group sessions enabling the project to advance smoothly. These are adaptations to working that have been brought about, partly of necessity, due to the restrictions in travel, have also been positive in terms of fostering closer group communication and dynamics in decision making.

In this way we have been continuing our work and one year on, while we have not yet been able to meet again in person, the project is advancing well as programmed. Online meetings have now replaced flights, hotels and sitting in rooms in universities (along with consumption of large quantities of sandwiches), so we can to some extent be pleased that this has dramatically reduced our carbon footprint to achieve the goals we have set. But we do look forward to being able to come together at least one more time before the project’s completion, in no small part to reaffirm the humanity of what we do and, we hope, to celebrate what we are aiming to create for the longer-term benefit of others.

For details of the Erasmus+ STEAM Innovation and Curriculum project please visit: Erasmus+ project card | Erasmus+ (europa.eu) 


Nathan Cohen is an artist, educator, researcher and writer whose interests include transdisciplinary art and science engagement and practices. In 2011 he established the first UK Masters course in Art and Science at Central Saint Martins (CSM), University of the Arts London. He is also currently a WRHI Visiting Professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, and a lead researcher on the European Union funded Erasmus+ STEAM project (2019 – 2022). New publication: ‘The Art of Science – Artists and Artworks Inspired by Science’, co-authored with colleagues at CSM, published by Welbeck (May 2021).

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