NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

From STEM to STEAM: Art Education, Innovation and Universities

By Professor Brad Buckley and Associate Professor John Conomos — Recently, there has been much discussion in the press and beyond about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) subjects at high school and at university. In particular, the Commonwealth Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda has focused exclusively on STEM disciplines. However, that discussion misses the central importance of creativity, inventiveness and innovation.

The importance of inventiveness to Australia has increased, as we – along with many other Western nations – face a declining or exhausted manufacturing base. This has meant that we, like many other countries, are now scrambling to maintain an edge in the global economy through the production of new knowledge and invention, or innovation as it is generally termed in national policy discussions.

In the US, inventiveness is widely considered to be the product of STEM alone. However, former Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) president John Maeda and other academics at RISD have led the way with a groundbreaking initiative that places art and design at the centre of the equation, transforming STEM into STEM + Art = STEAM. According to Maeda, STEAM ‘addresses creative problem solving, the translation of complex data for broad audiences through visualisation, and how to bring ideas to market through design’.[1] He has also made this salient point: ‘I believe art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century as science and technology did in the last century.’[2]

Maeda’s STEAM concept contests the prevailing belief that invention can only take place in the sciences. Further, and critically, having a broad, empirical and pragmatic view of invention that includes the creative sector would advance knowledge, government innovation policies and technology, and would considerably improve our cultural, economic and social life.

The art school should be at the centre of this shift. In essence, because of their speculative and inventive pedagogies, art schools question the narrow and hierarchical systems and approaches that have been adopted by our universities, which demonstrate an inability to understand what it means to be creative, innovative and life-affirming in today’s local and global economy.

It is a shame that C.P. Snow’s wise ‘two cultures’ debate from the early 1960s has been erased from the institutional memories of our universities. The consequence of this is that our neoliberal federal and state governments are reducing, to the point of removing altogether in some cases, their funding of art, cultural works and universities, along with art galleries, museums, cultural precincts and green spaces. Our senior university bureaucrats, politicians and captains of industry display a classic instance of the resonating wisdom of Oscar Wilde’s observation that some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

There is a general distrust of artists, poets, musicians and intellectuals evident in our universities’ policies, especially at the moment, so it is small wonder that they define creativity and innovation narrowly, within the STEM framework. It is a form of educational rationalism. This is, bluntly put, a lose-lose game. No one benefits from this policy.

As evidence of the dominance of neoliberal ideology, one only has to witness the closure of art and design schools in the TAFE sector across Queensland and NSW over the past decade, at Western Sydney University, the University of Newcastle, and the current sustained attack on Sydney College of the Arts.

In terms of public policy, Governments and universities are also prone to adopting the pop psychological myths of ‘left-brain, right-brain’ theory – that the two hemispheres of the brain have neatly divided and opposite functions. Ironically, the explosion in neuroscience knowledge has confirmed what artists, poets and musicians have long suspected: that the two hemispheres communicate with each other through the corpus callosum.

It is a pity that our senior university bureaucrats, politicians and policy think tanks ignore this information, which supports the move from STEM to STEAM. This shift is indispensable if we are to have any place in the Asian 21st century.

Born in Sydney, Brad Buckley is an artist, activist, urbanist and Professor of Contemporary Art and Culture at Sydney College of the Arts, the University of Sydney. He was educated at St Martin’s School of Art, London, and the Rhode Island School of Design. His work, which operates at the intersection of installation, theatre and performance, investigates questions of cultural control, democracy, freedom and social responsibility. His work has been exhibited internationally for over three decades. He is also the editor, with John Conomos, of several books the most recent of which is Erasure: The Spectre of Cultural Memory (Libri, 2015).

John Conomos is a Sydney–based artist, critic and writer who is an Associate Professor and Honorary Principal Fellow at the Faculty of the Victoria College of the Arts and the Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne. He had been internationally exhibiting his autobiographically–inflected art since the 80s which focuses on the ‘in-between’ spaces, contexts and links between contemporary art, cinema, critical theory, and literature. He has been a prolific critic and writer since the same time and has contributed to many academic conferences, symposia, and forums around the world. He has, over the years, also collaborated with Professor Brad Buckley in co-editing books and co-chairing international conferences. He is recently also collaborating with Steven Ball in a new exhibition called “Deep Water Web” which will open at the Furtherfield Gallery, London, on September 9,  2016.


[1] To read John Maeda’s comments on STEAM in full, go to http://www.risd.edu/About/STEM_to_STEAM/ (accessed 13 July 2013).

[2] For a further discussion on inventiveness and innovation see Brad Buckley, John Conomos and Andy Dong (eds), Ecologies of Invention, Sydney University Press, 2013.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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By Dr Jenny Wilson. DDCA’s Research officer Jenny Wilson caught up with Henk Borgdorff in Amsterdam in April 2016, hot on the heels of his recent speaking tour of European and UK universities, art and music schools, to find out more about artistic research and European experiences of the politics of art and higher education.
By Professor Graeme Sullivan Visual arts has no singular function because it can be called on to do just about anything. Arts’ usefulness is because it is edgeless and homeless—art is masterful at shape shifting and form fitting
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By Professor Estelle Barrett and Professor Barbara Bolt — At a roundtable at the Australian Council of University Art Schools (ACUADS) annual conference in 2014, panelists were asked to address the following question: What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art? Whilst the panel felt that the development of higher degree research programs in creative arts did not lead to better “art” they did agree that it has profoundly affected the way art is framed and understood both within the academy and beyond.
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