The role of the Arts in technology and education

At the Rhode Island School of Design, an initiative began to include a 'A' for Arts in STEM, making it 'STEAM' (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics). Computer-generated images, video, virtual reality, 3D printing, and high-tech tools for artists are transforming art.

The Maker Movement is redefining arts and crafts, as well as science and technology, as highly personal and social endeavours. Everyone is a maker, and as a result, everyone is also an artist. The arts can be utilised to naturally introduce children to the world of making.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“There is no greater education than one that is self-driven.”
— Neil deGrasse Tyson

While the common perception of the Maker Movement and Maker Education is that emphasis is given to the unification of technical competencies, especially craft and engineering, the importance of the arts as a source of balance, inspiration, and, of course, good taste, is increasingly being recognised.

An initiative to add ‘A’ for Arts in STEM, making it ‘STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics), began at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and is gaining wide adoption among schools, corporations and individuals (1).

The arts have been traditionally regarded as a completely separate learning direction to that of engineering and science. It is often hard to see how painting, sculpting and design can contribute meaningfully to a growth in the national GDP and to individual success. However, that way of thinking and viewing economic, commercial and personal reality is shortsighted. Today, with the benefit of many years of research in creativity, innovation and personal growth, we know that the arts are as essential as mathematics.

The arts cover an extremely diverse range of human expression and activity. Art can be visual, auditory or performing. It can be a medium for the expression of beauty, ideas or emotion. The arts are associated strongly with attributes such as creativity and interpretation.

Although artists can use virtually any kind of material to create art(-efacts), there is an increasing wave of artists using electronics and computer as a new medium for art. Computer-generated imagery, video, virtual reality, 3D printing and a new generation of high-tech tools for artists are transforming art.

Thanks to this convergence, artists and engineers are starting to recognise that they have complementary skills. The tools that an engineer can use to create the schematics for a diesel combustion engine can be used by an artist to design a fire-breathing dragon. When it comes to making and Maker Education, learners can learn a lot about creativity from artists. Creativity is a core ingredient to innovation.

The purpose of art varies, but most people agree that it is to satisfy a basic human need for harmony, balance and rhythm. This was identified by Aristotle, 2000 years ago:

“Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature. Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.” ― Aristotle (2)

Through art, we may also experience the mysterious, and express our imagination (3). It is hard to ignore these attributes when it comes to making. They are all powerful ways to satisfy basic human needs and enrich every aspect of our lives, including education, technology and business.

We can see art in everything that a maker makes. Constructing a robot or a useless box (4) requires engineering, of course, but the same sense of balance and imagination that an artist will apply to create a painting or a sculpture. Even though engineering often seems disconnected from those basic human needs, and it seems totally utilitarian, disconnected from its human designer, in making, things are very different. Every artefact has the signature of its maker in the way that it looks, the way that it is made, the way that it works. It is a one-of-a-kind.

And just as you can see the change in style and expressivity in the work of any artist, you can see the same in the work of any maker, as their skills, taste for symmetry and beauty, and confidence improve over time.

Dougherty, the publisher of Make magazine, said that...

“We often frame arts and crafts as being very personal and we often frame science and technology as being impersonal. Yet I think the Maker Movement is re-framing both arts and crafts and science and technology, so that they are understood to be highly personal and social, yet with shared skills and capabilities. It doesn't mean they are the same thing, but our culture has tended to separate them and create distance when we should be looking for cross-links and connections. Creativity lives at these intersections.”

It seems that art is part of making, and just like everyone is a maker, as a consequence everyone is also an artist.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of how the arts can be part of making and maker education in particular.

The arts can be used as a natural way for children to enter into the world of making. Painting, sculpting with sand, colours and shapes all come naturally to children and they don’t need to be prompted to use them and make art (6).

Art can be used as a way to scaffold and complete a project. For example, the maker, being informed of the concepts of shape and symmetry, style and colour selection, can create an artefact that is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

Educators have developed strategies that help to integrate arts into making specifically or into an education curriculum in general (7).

For example, visual arts can be used to allow students to express their learning by creating visual representations of their understanding. Being geography, biology, math or engineering, the scope for using visual arts to enhance learning is vast.

Another strategy can be borrowed from general music classes. Call and Response is a learning technique involves two musicians (8). One ‘calls’, meaning that she plays a musical phrase. The other one ‘responds’, meaning that he plays a different musical phrase in response to the first one. This technique builds on natural human communication and how a normal conversation takes place, with two people interacting verbally.

Because art is intrinsically personal, it is a perfect medium through which a person can express themselves uniquely. Consider a new box of Lego. It contains all the pieces necessary for building the toy, as described by the step-by-step instruction booklet that comes with the box. Typically, a child will construct the toy according to the given instructions. There is not much self-expression happening there, it is simply a process of the child becoming familiar with the Lego mechanics, and the various pieces. But what happens in the end, almost every time, is that once the construction as-per the instructions is complete, the child will start improvising. He will find a piece from an old Lego construction and add it to the new toy. He might move a piece from one part of the toy to another. He might just take it apart and start anew, with a completely new design, not following the instructions. The art within the child will come out eventually. Allowing for this to happen is extremely important, and is an effortless way to integrate art into making.

Over time, principles and techniques from the arts can also be introduced, so that the maker has a more elaborate array of artistic tools to use.


  1. STEM to STEAM
  2. Aristotle. "[Book 10:] The Poetics". Republic. Note: Although speaking mostly of poetry here, the Ancient Greeks often speak of the arts collectively
  3. Art
  4. An example of a useless box
  5. Creating a Movement: What Makes Up Maker Faire
  6. Project-Based Learning as a Context for Arts Integration
  7. Use Arts Integration to Enhance Common Core
  8. Call and response (music)

Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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