When Art and Science Collide, STEAM Happens

Many years ago I worked on a mapping project for our local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Some people may remember the U.S.D.A. Soil Conservation Service (SCS). The SCS no longer exists; it’s duties and responsibilities being folded within the NRCS. Another fellow and I managed a team of undergraduates in the mapping of county soils. In the mid-1990s, large digitizing tables were used to capture information from maps or large aerial photographs. The paper maps were secured with tape and a digitizer puck was moved over lines to capture geometry, like roads, streams, or elevation contours. Or, as in our case, soil boundaries.


Digitizing soils using your eyes, hands, and a digitizing puck was mostly tedious work but attention to detail was necessary. Bob, myself, and a few others would take turns mounting large orthophotos to a large Summagraphics Microgrid digitizer table and digitizing soil boundaries into Arc/Info 6. The orthophotos came to us marked in pencil or Sharpie from the local NRCS office where a soil scientist had the chore of drawing all the lines in the first place.


Using the digitizer puck we would capture the lines representing differences in soil types by tapping a button on a puck, registering a location (“vertex”) and doing our best to accurately render the line the soil scientist had drawn. Every so often, we would save our work as an Arc/Info coverage, and after about 4 hours of digitizing, we would take a break. In order to ensure we didn’t duplicate lines, or duplicate the work of someone else, we placed a translucent sheet of mylar atop the aerial photograph. After every line, we used a color pencil to trace the line we digitized. Eventually, we would cover the mylar sheet with colored lines and move on to a new aerial photograph and a new mylar cover sheet.

At first, we used a single color for tracing our soil lines. After a couple sheets, I realized how cool these mylar sheets were; all of these intricate lines drawn in seemingly abstract ways but in reality based upon real world conditions. And, then, I realize how cool these mylar sheets might be if we had a box of colored pencils to use instead of a single color. So, I bought us a box of colored pencils and began alternating colors for my line-tracing/record-keeping. As we all contributed to the digitizing project with our line-work, the finished mylar sheets were clipped to the walls in our little mapping office. Visitors would pass through what eventually became an impromptu art gallery and ask, “What are those?” And we would reply, “Those are the sheets we used to keep track of our progress in mapping soils. We used colored pencils for keeping track or our progress and realized how neat these sheets were, and we didn’t want to just throw them away. So, we hung them up.” Our mapping room became an ad hoc art gallery for our soils project.

We, as a society, need to tread very cautiously when we allow our hubris and personal bias to dictate the direction and aspirations of other people. The consequences of those choices may appear to proceed in a certain positive direction. But, we honestly cannot predict with absolute certainty what benefits will truly result from the government imposing their educational will upon people. Matt Bevin, new governor of Kentucky, says, “There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French literature majors. There just will,” the Associated Press reported. “All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so, they are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer.”

This is a very myopic perspective yet not surprising as the person stating this went to Washington and Lee University, a private college in Lexington, Virginia, in order to earn a degree in East Asian Studies. I can imagine his line of reasoning: “I went to a private school, earned a liberal arts degree, used ROTC, a part-time job, and financial aid to help pay for years at a private school. Other people should model me. In fact, myself and a number of other like-minded Conservatives are going to collaborate across the United States and work towards removing public support for liberal arts education.”

A few years ago I might have fallen into this mindset. My idea was not to remove financial aid support but to develop a tiered structure to provide loan relief or reduced interest rates to promote education in particular economic sectors. Fortunately, I saw several flaws in this line of thinking. I’m not sure the federal or state government needs to be the one deciding what degree should be supported with public money. That decision involves dangerous assumptions about a person’s ability to earn, achieve, and contribute I’m not sure a government body should make. I also find the idea of restricting access to public money to a finite collection of fields and disciplines against one principle popular among Conservatives, Free Markets. Should not the job market itself be the one which signals the educational pursuits of a person? At least to some extent? I’m amused Conservatives who espouse hating government regulation are the first ones to advocate government regulation of educational training and a degrees, not the Free Market.

Conservatives looking to demolish liberal arts education want precisely zero public funding for liberal arts. And that thinking and rationale is fundamentally flawed. The United States Bureau of Economic Analysis in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts released a report detailing the contribution of Arts to the U.S. economy in 2013. The Arts and Cultural Productivity contributed 4.3% ($704.2 billion) to the U.S. economy (NEA). In Kentucky, Arts and Cultural Productivity supported 60,000 jobs directly, with an additional 48,000 jobs indirectly supported by arts and humanities (artscouncil.ky.gov.) These jobs accounted for over $2 billion dollars in total earnings in 2013. In Kentucky, the arts support more people than the automobile industry, support almost as many in the IT/Telecom industry, and nearly 4x’s more than the biomedical industry.

As an advocate for Makers, makerspaces, and DIY, I don’t see any way one can effectively argue to decouple Arts from STEM, as Bevin and other Conservative Republicans would like. They clearly do not understand education, do not understand creativity, do understand the intrinsic linkage between arts and science, and in fact, a much better argue could be made these two components of a well-rounded education CANNOT be decoupled. To do so demonstrates blind ignorance essentially of how the human brain functions, how innovation works, and the elements of a thriving workplace. Someone who claims to be an “Entrepreneur” on his Facebook page should not need these details explained; he should be advocating for more arts as well as more science. I can only conclude Bevin is not a true entrepreneur, and simply has adopted the moniker because he thinks Kentuckians are too stupid to question his credentials. And being raised in Missouri, I was brought up with the “Show Me” attitude. Don’t tell me you are an entrepreneur, “Show Me.”

Justin Roberts shows people he is an entrepreneur. Justin is a self-starter, self-educated local Kentucky craftsman, trained in the weaving of willow into functional art.

I have coffee with Justin a couple times a week. He usually stops in the local cafe before hunting willow. He contorts willow in amazing ways with care, diligence, and contemplation.  A local artisan with a national market, Justin as sold his willow pieces throughout the United States from his humble abode in Calloway, County, Kentucky.

Walk The Willow {web site}

Wyatt Severs is another member of our Coffee Caucus. Wyatt’s favored medium is also wood. From his studio Wyatt turns out massively cool works of art, bowls, chairs, desks, and even old-fashioned Christmas tree ornaments. Anyone who doesn’t see the art and science literally colliding in the pic below clearly slept through high school. Or college.


Yes, Justin and Wyatt are familiar with each other. They grew up nearly shoulder-to-shoulder for the last 30 years. Not brothers but nearly so as they support each other, belong and contribute to the local art guild, and are well-known for supporting local K-12 education through their mentoring and workshops engaging the brains and creativity of  local school-aged children.

Wyatt Severs {web site}

What promulgators of pure STEM education miss is STEM needs the “A” to work. STEM people need employment that potentially directly comes from a person educated in “A.” STEM lacks creativity many times; we often must step outside our STEM disciplines to seek inspiration for STEM-related questions. Think of Star Trek: The Original Series for a moment. Star Trek is purely a liberal arts construct. Creative writing, humanities, psychology, sociology, with some fantastical science liberally applied to grab people’s attention, provide a sense of wonder. Yet, today our cellphones are the Star Trek communicator. Our iPads and Android tablets are the pads Kirk signed to complete his daily bureaucratic chores. The fabricators of the USS Enterprise are not that far away, as CNC routers, 3D printers and 3D scanners evolve.

The “A” provides the dreams and imagination motivating STEM. That drive generates STEAM. And STEAM provides power to enervate a world-leading economy. PAX

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