From STEM and STEAM to ECO-STEAM: Why the Whole is Important
Photo: Royce Milam / Flickr

From STEM and STEAM to ECO-STEAM: Why the Whole is Important

Posted by Bruce Rinker on Monday, October 3 2016


Bruce Rinker

Years ago, during my interview for an adjunct professorship at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, I argued successfully the need for the college to hire me as an ecologist to work with the institution’s distinguished arts educators and students.

They needed me, I asserted, to help provide a critical thinking approach to the natural world too often portrayed naively in the visual and performing arts. I am happy to report that, for years afterward, I taught a popular course at the school focused on biodiversity as our global treasure.

During my interview, I showed two beautiful illustrations: one image of a gray, dilapidated boardwalk in a marsh surrounded by the magenta inflorescences of a plant called Purple Loosestrife; another image of fairies dancing under the cap of an enchanting milky-white mushroom called the Destroying Angel.

The problem?

Purple Loosestrife is an invasive nonnative plant that turns wetlands into monocultures throughout the United States and Canada, thereby diminishing the form and function of these critical ecosystems. Why then promote such an exotic, destructive plant via art and design?

The plant is an important organism in its native European habitat where it belongs.

Destroying Angel can be a deadly mushroom common in backyards. A single spore transferred from an unwashed finger can rot away an eyeball. And the accidental consumption of the fungus can lead to a gruesome death. Why then encourage children via art and design to view the mushroom as an innocuous playground of fairies?

The fungus is an important food item for wildlife, however, such as turtles and deer that can process its killer enzymes.

The solution I proposed? An ecology-based course to complement the topnotch art and design program at the college.

Ecology is the study of the interrelationships among organisms and their home, or “oikos,” surroundings. Simply put, it’s holistic thinking.

Since the late 1990s in the United States, educators have emphasized something called STEM education. The acronym refers to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as ways to advance America’s leadership in workforce development, national security, and economic expansion.

Then, in the early 21st century, educators became concerned about the narrow left-brain emphasis of such training. They then introduced the idea of STEAM education as an improved framework for teaching across disciplines, adding right-brain activities to help advance creativity and innovation. The “A” in the acronym represents “Arts + Design.”

These same educators argued that STEM education was necessary but not sufficient for the future leadership of the country, echoing the views of Theodor Billroth, a widely respected 19th century surgeon and musician. Billroth once wrote insightfully, “It is one of the superficialities of our time to see in science and in art two opposites. Imagination is the mother of both.” Thus, STEAM education stimulates the entire mind – both sides of the brain – in a holistic interweaving of achievement.

Yet, some of us educators argue, even STEAM is not sufficient for Americans to remain competitive. Now we know that healthy minds and bodies depend on a healthy environment. Science and art are essential for the former, but the latter provides the context for sustainable living.

Perhaps it’s time for an all-inclusive educational acronym: ECO-STEAM. The whole, or “oikos,” is important.

We humans are clever animals; but science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics will not likely provide lasting solutions to the problems we have created unwittingly as a global species. The “cure” for such calamitous crises as biodepletion, human-accelerated climate change, and marine plastics pollution may be beyond the capabilities of STEAM fields.

The cures may reside in our natural, or ecological, surroundings. We may be able to employ an innovative approach called biomimicry – a new field of study with the basic premise that humans should emulate nature’s genius in societal designs. Think Velcro as one of the best examples of biomimicry engineered back in 1941 from plant burs. Biomimicry looks to ecology, or “oikos” or our home on Earth at multiple scales, to provide for the reach of our dreams.

Applications of biomimicry abound for the fields of agriculture, architecture, clothing, communication, energy, medicine, and transportation. In other words, the natural world may have already solved our problems in its billions of years of evolutionary experimentation – we just have to encourage our innate curiosities, especially in young people, to recognize life’s natural genius and its boundless application for the betterment of society.

ECO-STEAM has the potential to help turn our educational institutions, and indeed our everyday lives, into laboratories of discovery and innovation in order to emulate nature.

As schools and colleges open across the country for the new academic year, we should fully embrace ECO-STEAM among educators, students, parents, school boards, and others committed to the upbringing of tomorrow’s leaders. ECO-STEAM could trigger an entrepreneurial spirit among today’s youth by helping them work out the sustainable complexities that link the natural and human worlds.

As one of Earth’s youngest species, we humans could do a better job of learning from our elders – from all the bacteria, fungi, plants and animals that constitute the rich tapestry of life from which the modern form of Homo sapiens emerged over 200,000 years ago.

Let’s stop being naïve in our portrayal of the natural world and see it, not as a passive backdrop for human society, but as the best-of-the-best Off Broadway performance that’s been running for more than 3.5 billion years. And you can’t beat the ticket price!

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