Illustration of a brain, showing the challenges of the business world on the left in simple line drawings of black, grey and orange, and bright, multi-coloured paint splashes on the right.

Building up a head of STEAM

We’re all familiar with STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. We view them as necessary skills for a changing world of digital everything and continued innovation, but for some time there has been a tendency to separate these subjects from other areas which are also at the very core of the human experience. The creative arts have almost been considered extraneous to the commercial world, while STEM qualifications have soared in value. However, business leaders are recognising that effective skillsets are more than just technical and organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the Society of Human Resource Management are warning that there is already a shortage of candidates with the necessary skills of critical thinking and creativity. It seems that the world is ready for a more rounded skillset and adding ‘Arts’ into the acronym is an obvious place to begin.

There’s strong evidence to suggest that arts education brings more to the table than just self-expression. It strengthens engagement with learning and enhances communication, creative problem solving, observation and risk taking – all necessary for the world of work. But while transformation is now business as usual for organisations around the world, there is a concerning lull period where the education system operates at a disparate speed. This skills gap has meant that many enterprises – Canon included – are forging ahead with programmes that bring the necessary skills and requirements of industry to the future workforce. The approaches differ, but all are looking to introduce educationally inclusive experiences to teachers and students alike.

Young people in school uniform sit at a desk drawing on paper.
Increasing the arts and soft skills into a STEM curriculum can have a real impact on future leaders.

Inspiring Educators

Canon Medical Research Europe (CMRE) continually work at the cutting edge of technology to create medical imaging software that, put simply, saves lives. From their hub in Edinburgh, work in Artificial Intelligence goes hand-in-hand with clinical research and product development, underpinned by team of world class STEM professionals. But, as Principal Scientist of AI Research, Dr Keith Goatman stresses “creativity is the key”. He and his colleagues regularly open their doors to educators as a way to share experiences and learn about the mutual challenges of attracting young people to careers that are less well-known, but are equally as fulfilling, exciting and meaningful. Visiting teachers are introduced not just to the nuts and bolts of what happens within the internal teams at CMRE but head out to hospitals to see how their work translates into real life. This situational approach takes classroom theory and connects the dots all the way to the hospital bed and with it adds the context of the skills required beyond the technical. Ultimately, this experience arms teachers with confident answers to the inevitable “what’s the point?” questions and gives them real-life routes from classroom to career that they would perhaps never know to consider.

However, as Keith points out, “choice is lifelong, not just for school” and having an education that encompasses both soft and hard skills equips us to handle change, which is key in a world of continual transformation. “People can change paths at any stage of their career – in this industry, changing track is actually very natural,” he says. “However, loving what you are learning, discovering how to handle knowledge and applying analytical thinking are fundamentals.” He is a strong believer in removing silos in education so that organisations such as CMRE can benefit from talent with a blended set of skills that can be built upon over time.

Heather MacCrae, Managing Director of the Ideas Foundation, is also strong believer in the need for educators to be more attune to industry. In her work, with Canon and other global brands, she connects young people with challenging real-world creative briefs, simulating the setting of a world-class advertising agency. She sees industry changing before her eyes and employers reassessing the value of the sort of soft skills that come from exposure to creative problem solving. “They [creative skills] are an enabler, rather than a diversion,” she says. “technical skills are important, but if you can’t listen, read, interpret and generate ideas then you’re not going to become top of your field.”

“To hear about the career journeys of the employees, the different paths they have taken, unexpected twists and turns was really awe-inspiring.”

— A STEM teacher on meeting the team at CMRE.

Inspiring Students

The Canon Young People Programme tackles precisely this, offering training and exposure to some specialist technical tools in a setting that actively requires collaboration, critical thinking, ideas generation, time management and problem solving – and the results can be quite astonishing. In Belgium, the young participants used their brief of “Our Safe Cities” to create a powerful visual narrative that highlighted problems of sexual harassment in public spaces. They have since gone on to use this project to drive a resolution in regional parliament. Working together to solve problems, using emotional intelligence and empathy took their experience further and created a powerful positive outcome.

It’s solid proof that academic learning and technical skills can be enhanced by taking a more creative approach. “Because some of the content is dull, there’s no getting round it.” says Heather. “Academic writing, for example, is very different to the writing you need now in everyday life. Convincing writing, educational writing – they’re skills that need consideration. So, if you’re writing your PhD, that’s a very different language to, say, your LinkedIn profile. How do you translate what you want to say for the different audiences?” Incorporating the arts and humanities into teaching creates a fertile ground for learning and openness to new approaches in the classroom – and beyond. And for the future talent pipeline, this is essential in the early school years when children start to mentally assess their future careers.

Two girls in a classroom, wearing school uniform and holding Canon cameras.
Arts education brings more to the table than just self-expression. It can support teamwork, critical thinking, observation and communication.

Educational transformation

Breaking down siloes is one of the key challenges in any transformation programme and the same is true for education. While a focus on STEM has, through necessity, ringfenced these subjects, at the same time it creates unfortunate divides between disciplines. This leads to another frustrating result: groupthink. Recently, Heather has seen institutions and universities realise that the practice of likeminded people with similar aptitudes working together is actually reducing their collective creativity. “Diversity of thinking is where real innovation comes from” she says. “A breakdown of siloes in perspectives means seeing and communicating things differently. It lets teams look at user needs from a range of perspectives and this has an impact on project success.” This intrinsic divide begins early, where even the youngest pupils quickly learn that art and maths, for example, don’t mix. This immediately limits the potential of children who may actually show real potential for both but see their value in only one or the other, taking their cues for future careers from an outdated model that doesn’t reflect the modern workplace.

It’s also accepted that the ability to learn is as necessary as having qualified, with ‘lifelong learner’ featuring high on the list of desirable soft skills. In an age where the speed of technological advancements is breathtaking and new jobs are created as quickly as others become obsolete, future careers are more likely to follow a ‘mountainous terrain’ than a ‘path’. Heather cites the construction as an obvious example of this, as many traditional roles in the industry have become digital. “Quite a few colleagues I work with are more trans-disciplinary,” she says. “But whatever the industry, the sort of people they’re looking at has changed. And they’re now looking for people who are now all-rounders, who’ve got the STEAM perspective.”

A generation of inspiring self-starters

While the current education framework plays catch-up and organisations are taking a proactive approach to bringing a world of new ideas, potential careers and opportunities to innovate to the classroom, in the middle are the students themselves. With an absence of up-to-the-second information in the classroom, frustrated students are taking matters into their own hands. Generation Z are incredibly capable self-educators, with the Internet providing everything they need to learn – whether it’s app development, filmmaking or bricklaying. “There’s a real sense of possibility and risk taking ‘it might go wrong, it doesn’t matter’, whereas the perfectionism of trying to get everything right is something from an older generation.” Heather observes. “Again, this is why we try to have a mix of ages and perspectives in our workshops – to model each other’s learning.” It certainly brings into question what education will look like in the future – should we expect to see the traditional path to graduation replaced and institutions, individuals and organisations working together to create a lifelong experience of learning? It certainly looks like there is a desire to modernise, but in the meantime recognising and nurturing STEAM is way forward in realising an innovative future without limits.

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard

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