ASQ Asks: What Can We Do to Encourage STEM? I Say: STEAM

zome-2In his March 2015 post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski asks “What can we do to encourage the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals?” My answer will be short today because I’ve been actively working on that for the past several months with a senior capstone project team (Cassidy Moellers, Dylan Chance, and Robert Spinoza) at James Madison University – we’re getting ready to finalize the project in the next couple of weeks, and submit an academic paper to the STEAM Journal about how you can use art to catalyze interest and engagement in STEM.

So much innovation in STEM is fueled by imagination and exploration, and in my opinion, we don’t communicate that very well to younger people. A great gateway drug for this purpose is art. There’s even a movement underway to expand out vision of STEM, and more tightly and more essentially integrate aesthetics, form, design, and fun into what we do via STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math).

STEAM doesn’t advocate just doing the arts alongside more traditional science and engineering. It actually requires that we look towards how we can use STEAM to create meaning for ourselves and our communities. In other words, it can help us get our mind off of science and engineering to understand and control the world around us – and focus more on how beautiful and intriguing things are that we can learn in those domains.

The picture above is the interactive zonohedral dome (or “zome”) that our students created specifically to engage others in the fun of integrated science and engineering. Here’s how they summarize their project:

As our communities expand rapidly, both physically and digitally, we can lose our sense of connection and togetherness. Interactive and participatory art interventions cultivate community by provoking engagement in unexpected areas. In this project, the prototype for an interactive zonohedral dome (or “zome”) was constructed as a proof of concept for an art intervention to engage students in collaborative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math ) learning, by creating feelings of connection with the technology and with each other. Consequently, it demonstrates the values of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) movement in education. Design elements (and an assessment approach) were selected based on a comprehensive literature review which focused on the aspects of engagement that would boost participants’ interest in and proficiency with STEM subjects.
A zome is a structure that supports itself solely due to its geometry. No nails or glue are used in the construction. The interactive nature of the structure emerges from sensors that detect occupancy, with music and lights automatically responding to the pattern of people entering and leaving the zome. Many technologies were combined to create this experience, including SketchUp (to design the components), Makerbot Replicator II (to build the structure), Arduino (to detect occupancy via phototransistors), LightShowPi (to generate Fast Fourier transforms of music files and control the frequency and amplitude of audio communicated via LEDs), and RaspberryPi (a microcomputer to run LightShowPi and translate the signals from the Arduino to play audio at pre-designated decibel levels). 
We’ll post a video of the zome in action very soon. It’s so fun to look at, and play with… and what better way to learn programming than to make a structure respond to the presence and motion of the people around it?

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