Last fall, the Global STEAM working group sponsored a three-roundtable forum, “Global STEAM in an Age of Crisis,” and the working group now is focusing on establishing a fall graduate seminar and a student blog to engage the campus more fully.
The Global STEAM steering committee recently gathered to talk about their initiative, and we’ll share their thoughts over the next few newsletters, with the next topic - exploring the value of Global STEAM to the University of Illinois Community.
Ann: “What is Global STEAM? What does it mean to you?”
Tim: It’s very much a label in search of a definition, and part of the purpose of this group is to try to define it. In a sense, the problem it grapples is omnipresent – its that the univocal ways of talking about science refract incredibly complicated and diverse and problematic ways depending on cultural and social settings. How you understand that refraction, or how you address and engage with it, is an everyday problem for policymakers but it’s a very complicated analytical issue for all of us in the academy. So I’d like to think that we’re constantly going to come back to try to define and refine this concept, even though the framing problem is very obvious, and has become even more obvious during the timeframe of the pandemic.
David: Yes! But it’s also a recognition that the sciences and the arts/humanities are intertwined and inseparable, and the way they’re practiced and deployed is context-dependent. That is to say, the particular relationship between all of the component letters of STEAM—as well as the goals and outcomes—will depend on the local circumstances where they’re applied. It also recognizes that we live in a globalized, interconnected world, and that we can’t only focus on one local context or another. We have to imagine outcomes in various contexts, and we have to be aware of inequities and imbalances between various global contexts. That’s part of what makes it so tricky.
Ann: We all come from such different scholarly backgrounds, and as the engineer in the group, I tend to focus on the empirical, definitive statement. Just by the fact that Tim says defining Global STEAM is something that’s ongoing, and one of our roles is to think about what it can mean for our campus, I have to reconcile this problem with my training, from which I’d say, “This is what it is, now let’s do something with it.” It contradicts my training to step back first and say, “Whoa, wait. We don’t even have a clear-cut definition yet. That’s what we have to work on first.”
Tim: Whereas I’ve been taught that the moment you come to a conclusion, it’s time to freak out because you’re probably wrong. (laughter)
Jessica: Throughout my education so far, I’ve been raised to have that engineering mindset that Ann was just talking about. A lot of the reason students choose engineering is because of that clear-cut nature that they think it offers. But as I’ve had more interactions with multi-disciplinary ideas, I’ve learned that one of the biggest things for a good engineer is accepting uncertainty and understanding that it’s never clear how the sciences interact with the social sciences, humanities, and the arts, but it still is worth investigating.
Ann: It’s really a new way of thinking from everything you’ve been presented in coursework isn’t it? Jose, you’re in the physical sciences. How do you reconcile this “find the solution” versus “keep asking the questions” component of Global STEAM?
Jose: I have to admit that my view of it is probably not exactly the view of my field. And I like the point that Tim made about it being a term in search of a definition. In the natural sciences, physical sciences, you can’t ignore someone else’s work, or at least that’s what we hope students will learn to do. You cannot just think, okay, you came up with a new idea. But is it? Is it a new idea, and who else has ever proposed anything like that, because you don’t want to waste your time and you don’t want to seem like you haven’t investigated precedents of a certain phenomenon, concept or reaction. But at the same time, I agree with what Jessica said about learning to accept uncertainty because when we teach students about chemical concepts, we tell them to use approximations to accept that we’re going to look at it this way for simplicity. And that simplicity allows them to hopefully recognize that, okay, okay, if I do that, then I more easily can tell where I am, right? But in reality, nature is not like that. Nature is not that clear-cut all the time.
Jose: But something that I’ve learned to understand over years of thinking about this concept, or learning about new reactions, is that they don’t always do the same that other reactions did, and so those nuances are needed. When you understand that, you’re going to discover something new. But I totally agree with Tim, that we can’t say that we have concluded something because we can’t ever close the door to new ideas. I do think I like the idea of Global STEAM being a movement, let me put it that way. That reminds people in different fields and all geographical areas as well that there are different approaches to things. There are different perspectives to how to solve a problem. And ultimately, this will benefit us all by giving us the ability to get to a more, for lack of a better term, global view of how to approach things that will be better for everybody, not just for a certain group of people.
Ann: I love the way you just described that. As you were talking about this, you made that happen in me because I had never really thought of uncertainty as, for the physical sciences, being a simplification, where uncertainty for the Humanities and Social Science is a complexity.
Jose: We simplify it to get to not worry about it.
Ann: And yet that’s what we condition our STEM students to do. I can remember taking many physical science classes as an undergrad where the professor would say, “okay, we’re just going to neglect all this stuff, because it makes it too difficult.” And that’s an uncertainty. So we’re simplifying. But I’ve also taken sociology courses, where we can’t neglect stuff because that’s what plays into the whole dynamic that we need to explore. It’s a really good example of how, depending on what discipline you come from, you perceive a concept very, very differently. And it actually ends up microcosmically showing how global STEAM is so important because it allows people to capture each other’s disconnects, which is what creates so many of the global issues that we’re dealing with.
Originally published in The Spring 2021 Newsletter of the Illinois Global Institute, Vol. 1, Issue 1.