The intersection between technology, art, and STEM/STEAM is challenging--these skillsets are often taught in different parts of a campus.

The synergy between art and technology in higher ed

The intersection and collaboration between technology and art is challenging--these different skillsets are often taught in different parts of a campus

Key points:

  • Integrating art and technology in some shape or form helps students obtain a well-rounded education and define a stronger career path
  • As technology evolves, and culture and the arts overlap with it, career paths that highlight both fields of study are emerging
  • See related article: 4 ways to prepare art students for life after college

As a university professor for more than 30 years, I’ve often wondered why the general areas of technology and arts have been seen as so separate on campus. My experience is that there is great value in having a strong understanding of both areas. Engineering design practice, including computational thinking, can be seen as a form of creative design thinking as practiced in the arts.

When art and technology come together, artistic sensibility and creativity are used for concept and planning, while computer science and engineering skills are used to realize a design vision. This, it seems to me, is true whether the ultimate goal is an art project or an engineering design. I argue that it can be extremely valuable for a student to have experience in both artistic design and engineering design–and that this is a benefit both for arts students and engineering students. At the very least, learning the language of the other field so that one can communicate effectively with collaborators is immensely valuable, and should be a part of any educational program.

For higher education, this intersection and collaboration between technology and art is sometimes challenging because these different skillsets are often taught in extremely different parts of a campus. However, it is important to have both fields integrated in some shape or form, to obtain a well-rounded education and to enable a stronger career path for students. People may consider a computer scientist and an artist as two vastly different careers paths, but as technology evolves, and culture and the arts overlap with it, we’re seeing career paths that highlight both fields of study. Some fields intersect, including industrial design, architecture, and user experiences, to name a few. And for other fields, having experience in both areas will only strengthen a student’s job prospects in whatever field they choose. Employers often say that they’re looking for creative problem solvers, not just proficiency in a particular subject. What better way to encourage creative problem solving than to learn to solve creative problems?

Ongoing courses that involve computer science and art students working together to design and create can be an integral part of creating a collaborative environment in education. For example, students in these courses can explore the interfacing of embedded computer systems with sensors and actuators of all sorts. They then can explore the physical and conceptual aspects of machine-making as a fine-art sculpture process. The goal is to enhance the educational experience of both groups of students who would gain significant and unusual benefits that they can apply in a variety of ways in their respective disciplines. 

There are many benefits of interdisciplinary intersection. Finding ways to collaborate enhances the experience and the skill sets of both groups of students. Engineering majors benefit from thinking about artistic concepts and learning about creative design-thinking, while art students benefit by learning about what is and isn’t possible in an engineering sense, and by learning about engineering problem solving. This collaboration can involve technology used in arts classes, or arts projects in technical classes, or both. In all cases, this can assist students not only with their critical thinking, but to help them develop creativity and to prepare them for success in a world that is technology-focused.

Educators who teach STEAM/STEM courses would do well to make things relevant and connect the STEM/STEAM concepts to interesting artifacts that the students can make and experience. It’s one thing to learn the syntax and capabilities of a programming language. It’s quite another to see how those coding concepts can be used to build something that the students are personally excited about. This is sometimes referred to as physical computing–using computing to sense and control aspects of the physical world as opposed to primarily manipulating abstract data.

When the educator/teacher is excited and engaged, it also pushes their students to generate interest in the subject. If a teacher seems bored or jaded about the subject, that will come through to the students. A little genuine excitement for the field, or for the possibilities that the subject can lead to, goes a long way in terms of student engagement such as spending a little time on context for lessons–especially for parts that seem more abstract or technical. There’s always a way to connect the dots from even an abstract technical subject to how it will make a difference in some interesting context.

Hands-on learning is also critical. To truly learn something, students must try things out themselves and learn by doing it. This naturally involves a process of getting things not quite right and then evolving and adapting to correct and enhance the result. The best way to learn how to design computers is to design a computer. The best way to learn about creative design is to make a creative work with powerful underlying artistic concepts. Every class can be a “lab” experience. 

Computer graphics and interactive techniques have become so embedded in our culture that they can be overlooked if one is not careful. How much of today’s content, from movies to computer games, involves computer graphics and visual effects? It’s clear that computer graphics and interactive techniques are central to the experience of the consumer, but it’s revealing to look under the hood a bit to see how advances in computer graphics are making a difference in the latest version of a game or the newest blockbuster movie, from even a year ago. Teachers can tell when a student has “gotten it” when they start seeing context and relevance to other things that they’re interested in.

Higher education institutions around the country are understanding the critical nature of including technology in a general education setting and are including technology fluency in their curriculums. At the University of Utah, for example, I developed a course called Making Noise: Sound Art and Digital Media specifically to introduce computer science and engineering technology related to electronics and programming through the lens of experimental and electronic music and sound-art projects. This is a way to increase the students’ technological fluency, but through digital media projects, rather than engineering projects. It is also a way to expand students’ ideas about technology in the arts and how arts and technology interact in our modern world.

This course was not designed for computer science majors, but rather as a technology fluency course for students from across campus. One higher level goal of the project was to significantly expand the dialog on campus related to the intersection of arts and technology, and how creative design thinking and engineering problem solving are complementary skills that all students need. However, it has had the side effect of producing a few more computer science majors from students who didn’t know that computers could be used in these creative contexts.

Corporate recruiters often talk about valuing creativity and out-of-the-box thinking when they’re looking for new employees. Giving students the experience of learning about both technology and art considerations can only enhance the student’s skill set, which only makes them more attractive to future employees. My belief is that students with an understanding of both arts and technology will be the leaders of a new generation of computing/arts combined realities that will change the world.

Related: 4 ways to enhance critical thinking skills

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