By Orna Herr, Communications Officer (Education) at the British Science Association 


"We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry." - Maria Mitchell, astronomer 

If you’re familiar with the acronym STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and maths, you might have also heard of STEAM; the same subjects with the addition of an ‘A’ for the arts. STEAM as an acronym exists to discuss the intersection of science and creativity.

No innovation without imagination

There is agreement among education experts that weaving creativity into the teaching of STEM subjects is crucial for engagement, and for preparing young people with the necessary skills for future careers. It may seem that STEM subjects are about tests where there is one correct answer, whereas humanities like English and history have more space for interpretation. But STEM comes alive when scientific facts are applied creatively to real-world problems.   

A survey of 1,000 educators in the USA found that 67% said that creativity (which in a classroom context means allowing students to try news things, make decisions and use their imaginations) promotes problem solving skills among students, while 62% said it helps student think critically.

Solving problems and adopting an imaginative, critical-thinking mindset would serve young people well in almost any career, but particularly STEM-related jobs in the future. Predictions about the future of the workplace landscape suggest that, as the need to adapt to a changing world increases, sectors that use STEM in creative and innovative ways to improve our lives and tackle the issues we face are growing.   

So teaching STEM with an emphasis on creativity matters, but what does this mean in practice? Does our education system enable this?

Young people speak out: make space for our creativity

At the British Science Association’s (BSA) recent Future Forum workshops, attended by young people from across the UK, this question was a cornerstone of the discussions. And the answer, in short, was no.

Read the full Future Forum report     

Young people described a separation of STEM and the arts in their education experiences, forcing them to identify as either ‘creative’ or ‘technically-minded’. This, they said, can stifle creativity or engagement with subjects they enjoy.

In a survey taken by 1,000 14-18-year-olds commissioned by the BSA as part of this Future Forum, just over a third (35%) said they’re interested in being creative but don’t get to use creative skills regularly.

A significant percentage of young people not feeling that they have the space to flex creative muscles and not learning how the hard facts of STEM can be imaginatively applied to real-world problems does not bode well for the future. An academic study into the extent that university students studying STEM subjects and those studying arts subjects use creativity found that it is in fact very similar. Treating the two disciplines as mutually exclusive is not conducive to innovation and outside-the-box thinking.

CREST goes STEAM-powered

At the BSA, we actively champion STEM learning, showcasing how it intersects with other subjects and disciplines including creativity and the arts. Our brand new STEAM-themed Discovery pack CREST Awards resource is a great way to encourage this cross-curricular thinking in your students. Discovery projects allow students ages 10-14 to work in teams.

CREST, our flagship education programme, encourages young people aged 5-19 to think and act like scientists and engineers through student-led investigative projects.

Learn about our CREST Awards scheme

The new project pack, UNBOXED Creations, developed in partnership UNBOXED: Creativity in the UK, introduces students to STEAM and asks them to think about the relationship between STEM and creativity. Students form self-managed teams and come up with a large-scale, unforgettable event representing the arts and at least one STEM subject that would appeal people from different backgrounds. They could, for example, design an interactive exhibition or a cinematic experience.

Showing young people the real-world applications of STEM, and how new innovations can only happen with a creative mind, opens up a world of opportunity to them. The young people surveyed for our Future Forum were asked about their relationship with science and 17% said ‘it’s not for me.’ This needs to change.

We’re moving towards a more creative and broad view of STEM (A for arts is not the only letter that can be added; science relates all areas of life and the curriculum), and helping young people better understand its ever-evolving role in our lives. Hopefully the next generation will have the opportunity to see that, whether or not they study or aspire to work in science, it is for them. Science is for everyone.

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