Adding a Little STEAM: On Risk, Failure, and the Quality of Higher Education

doug-fullsteamahead(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

On Thursday, Morgan and I attended the first meeting of the Congressional STEAM Caucus on Capitol Hill… “a briefing on changing the vocabulary of education to include both art and science – and their intersections – to prepare our next generation of innovators to lead the 21st century economy.” STEAM seeks to promote creativity and innovation as key elements of Science-Technology-Engineering-Math (STEM) education. The “A” in STEAM reflects the growing awareness that art and design can be effective enablers, catalyzing the kind of creative thinking and openness to risk-taking that is critical for success in STEM. Although initially conceived by John Maeda of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), the idea is catching on, and there are now many supporters scattered across the country.

Why is STEAM gaining steam? As expressed by the panelists at the Caucus, many now recognize that students just aren’t being prepared by our educational system to be creative, independent thinkers who are willing to take risks and experiment. On View from the Q this month, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski raised the same issue, citing the recent ASQ STEM careers survey of young adults: students know that you have to experiment (and sometimes fail) to be successful in STEM, and yet they admit that they’re afraid to take those risks.

Paul asks:

I want to know how you— the quality professional — handle failure in the workplace. Do you try again until you find a solution? Are you penalized for failure? Or do you avoid it altogether? How much risk are you willing to take to find solutions to quality challenges?

One of the reasons Morgan and I started the Burning Mind Project is that we wanted our students to feel comfortable taking risks, and accept full personal responsibility for the evolution of their own learning process. We use techniques like “choose your own grade” and “grading by accumulation” to encourage risk taking, eliminate penalties for “traditional failure,” and shift the focus to understanding and embracing quality standards on a personal and visceral level. We like what STEAM represents because the approach embraces divergent thinking, and thus innately supports the development of positivity and emotional alignment in an educational setting, which (a la Fredrickson) broadens the ability of students to see new opportunities and possibilities

That is, to invent (and ultimately – by understanding how to create value for others – innovate).

Your weaknesses may actually be the keys that reveal your secret strengths. As educators, it’s up to us to help facilitate this process of discovery, not to fail our students for engaging in it. As business leaders, this can be more difficult because many of us have convinced ourselves that we should only have to pay for those things that “pay off.” However, the lessons learned from traditional failure are often the most empowering, even though our ability to honor them may be weak.

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