Q & A: John Maeda, RISD president and STEAM advocate

When we talk about innovation, we’re not just talking about pure math and science skills. We mean the ability to be creative, to solve problems in interesting, new ways. Artists do this all the time—and John Maeda, president of Rhode Island School of Design, would like to remind people of this fact. A leader in art, design and technology, he’s spearheading a movement called STEM to STEAM, arguing that the arts and design should be integrated into the national agenda of STEM education and research in order to drive innovation.

Design creates the innovative products and solutions that will propel our economy forward, and artists ask the deep questions about humanity that reveal which way forward actually is.

The idea has been gaining traction in the past few years, winning support from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, schools and numerous organizations—like Sesame Street, which is using a STEAM approach in its current season. The movement’s goals are to encourage the integration of art and design in education, to influence employers to hire artists and designers, and to transform research policy to place art and design at the heart of STEM.

Amplify talked with Maeda to find out why STEAM is rising.

Amplify: How have you seen the role of the arts and design in our society changing in recent years, and where do you think these fields are headed in the future?

JM: Design used to be an afterthought. But with so many technology start-ups today, design is what differentiates their products, humanizes them and adds an emotional connection. So we have this exciting next step. Now that we have enough technology to do anything, design can begin to be better than the technology itself. Art and design are what are truly driving innovation in the 21st century.

Amplify: Why is STEAM important for education right now?

JM: STEAM will keep America innovating and competitive in the 21st century. Coming from MIT, I’ve seen firsthand the innovation that STEM can produce, and I’ve also witnessed STEM’s limits. Creativity and ingenuity have always been central to the story of American progress, and STEAM continues that tradition. In the Conference Board’s “Ready to Innovate” study, 99 percent of superintendents and 97 percent employers agreed that creativity is of increasing importance in the workplace. And 85 percent of employers seeking creative employees said they were having difficulty finding qualified applicants with the right characteristics.

This creativity—the problem-solving, fearlessness, iteration, and critical thinking and making skills that I see every day in the studios here at Rhode Island School of Design are the same skills that will keep our country innovating, and their development needs to start in the K-12 schools.

Design creates the innovative products and solutions that will propel our economy forward, and artists ask the deep questions about humanity that reveal which way forward actually is. Sustaining arts education in its own right remains critically important. But equally important is taking a page from schools that have been successful at integrating the arts into STEM curriculum. Art and design engages students in STEM in new ways.

Artists and designers also have a lot to lend to the traditional STEM research process. Historically, many researchers approached our school expecting students and faculty to design the poster for their initiatives. But artists and scientists actually tend to approach problems with a similar open-mindedness and make natural partners. Artists and designers reformulate the questions that can guide a project, rethinking or redesigning the system at its base. In this vein, RISD is collaborating with the National Science Foundation on new ways to visualize oceanic data to see the impact of climate change on marine life. RISD was the only art school named as a principle investigator on one of these grants.

Amplify: Do you think STEAM is gaining, well, steam, and what have been some of the most encouraging developments?

JM: Last month, Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici and Congressman Aaron Schock launched a bipartisan Congressional STEAM Caucus, which already has 16 Congresspeople on board. This is a big step forward in advocating for STEAM legislation. The group, along with RISD, hosted a standing-room only briefing on Capitol Hill to launch the caucus, and Congresswoman Bonamici, Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, and others were on C-SPAN advocating for STEAM.

Concurrently, House Resolution 51 was just re-introduced by Congressman Jim Langevin and “expresses the sense of the House of Representatives that adding art and design into federal programs that target Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields encourages innovation and economic growth in the U.S.”

At RISD, we have always practiced STEAM in action, and recently we have received more grant funding and support for STEAM projects. We are also entering the second year of the Maharam STEAM Fellowships. These are funded internships that place RISD students in diverse fields ripe for the change that artists and designers can bring. Last year we had RISD students working at the Mayo Clinic, NPR Science and GlobeMed. This is just a sampling of the outpouring of support for STEAM.

Ever since we launched stemtosteam.org last year, we hear almost daily from educators, innovators, and other people who are passionate about STEAM and want to get on board.

Amplify: Who are some of the best practitioners of STEAM in education?

JM: The exciting thing about STEAM is it gives a name to innovative interdisciplinary work that is cropping up everywhere. Near Pittsburgh, the Elizabeth Forward Middle School is the third school in the nation to experiment with SMALLab technology, an interactive gaming technology like the Wii that allows children to learn with their bodies. In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel recently announced a “Summer of Learning” initiative that incorporates STEAM so students can “develop the skills and knowledge to succeed academically and compete for the careers of the future.”

There are also plenty of private and charter schools that are showing the benefits of STEAM education, from Blue School in New York City, started by the founders of the Blue Man Group, to the Drew Charter School in Atlanta, whose curriculum is premised on STEAM. Also, Quatama Elementary in Oregon, in Rep. Bonamici’s district, is working with the Right Brain Initiative to integrate arts into science and math lessons.

And, for the very first time, the current season of Sesame Street is being brought to viewers by the letters S-T-E-A-M.. Only a year ago, Elmo was interviewed on CNN about the importance of S-T-E-M. This is a testament to the power of creativity and further evidence that STEAM is catching on. We recently presented a STEAM panel at SXSWedu with practitioners from the Sesame Workshop, Blue School, and Adobe.

Amplify: Who are the STEAM movement’s detractors, and how do you counter their criticisms?

JM: I’ve had the opportunity to speak about STEAM around the world, in diverse forums of designers and technologists at TED, policymakers at Davos, and educators at SXSWedu, National Association of Arts Educators, and beyond. The feedback I see is overwhelmingly positive—and we have a growing cadre of supporters who not only believe in STEAM, but want to know how they can get involved.

If anything, we see more people wanting to get on board, and wondering why the STEAM acronym doesn’t explicitly include design, or reading, or the humanities. To them we say—please don’t take the “A” literally—STEAM is an effort to include the arts and humanities, broadly defined, in the programs and resources that the government is directing toward STEM.

Amplify: Why do artists make good leaders?

JM: If you are bold enough to have a vision and take risks, you can make a difference—artists and designers know how to do that, to fail productively, to iterate. Creativity and economic prosperity are bound together. Traditional leaders want to be right, to avoid mistakes. Creative leaders hope to be right, to learn from mistakes. It’s an ambiguous world out there, and artists and designers have a lot to teach us about how to navigate it.

Amplify: What are your hopes for the future of STEAM, and what would you like to see happening in American schools 50 years from now?

JM: My hope is for policymakers, leaders, and the general public to stop thinking of art and design as “nice to haves” and truly believe in them as “need to haves.” I believe we don’t need to “save the arts,” but instead that we can “save the world with the arts.”

John Maeda is a leader who imagines how design can simplify technology and help leaders respond to new challenges in the era of social media. His work as a graphic designer, computer scientist, artist and educator earned him the distinction of being named one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century by Esquire. In June 2008, Maeda became president of Rhode Island School of Design, and in late 2012, Business Insider named RISD the #1 design school in the world. Called the “Steve Jobs of academia” by Forbes, he believes art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century like science and technology did in the last century. Maeda previously served as associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab. He serves on the boards of Sonos, Quirky, and Wieden+Kennedy, and on the Davos World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. His books include “The Laws of Simplicity,” “Creative Code,” and “Redesigning Leadership,” which expands on his Twitter feed at @johnmaeda, one of Time Magazine’s 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2012. Maeda received the AIGA Medal in 2010 and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

This article is commissioned by Amplify Education Inc. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not represent those of Amplify Education Inc.