From STEM to STEAM: An Invitation

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Detail of graphic recording by Timothy Foss of More Belief

The missing piece 

I started noticing a gap in April, when I attended the Advancing Career Pathways Summit hosted by Senator Al Franken. The senator and his office had convened leaders to discuss Minnesota's workforce, the skills shortages that many employers and industries are facing, and the need to build more partnerships between businesses and schools to help students get the training they need. It was an impressive cross-sector group — voices from business, government, and education — but I saw that the perspectives of artists and creative people were missing. 

I noticed that gap again in May, when I had the opportunity to travel to Montreal for a conference called C2: Commerce + Creativity. One of the presenters was the founder of a robotics competition program that prepares high school students for success in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. He shared a video about the organization that tugged at the heartstrings, voiced by a young girl describing how robotics are a gateway to learning, achievement, and confidence. And yet — the arts were still missing. Creativity, even though it was in the name of the conference, was left out of a narrative focused solely on STEM. 

This missing piece bothered me because I knew firsthand that artists and creative entrepreneurs were out there, and that they had a lot to offer. I'd been introduced to the creative economy of my hometown, Mankato, through leading the entrepreneurial space Envision Lab. Images of entrepreneurs often focus on tech, but Envision Lab introduced me to people with piercings and tattoos, immigrants and people of color — entrepreneurs who didn't have venture capital investments or experience creating business plans, but who were eager to use their talents to start something new.  

Witnessing their work made me certain that artists' value goes far beyond making something to hang on the wall. Creative people's ability to think of new ideas, to ask thoughtful questions, and to see problems from different angles offers a valuable perspective. 

I also knew firsthand how the arts can be undervalued in system-wide conversations and decisions. I've been working with the organization Art Educators of Minnesota, and heard from them just how underfunded their work is. Some of those teachers have a budget of 27 cents per student per year.  

Meanwhile, the very skills that employers are missing in their workforce today are those that arts education can teach. Creativity, effective communication, critical thinking, complex problem solving — these are skills that are developed through a well-rounded education, including the arts. We are seeing that STEM alone is not enough. 

The concept of adding the arts to STEM to create STEAM isn't new, and in fact has been pursued in many school systems. But as we've seen, the conversation goes far beyond education to include government, business, and nonprofit decision-makers. What would happen if we built community capacity for STEAM at a city-wide level? What if we leveraged the assets from every sector — including creative entrepreneurs, established creative businesses, and nonprofit arts organizations — to infuse creativity into decision-making? How could we combine the arts with STEM to create an approach that's both scientific and creative, one better suited to our complex challenges? 

An idea was born: the STEAM City Initiative.  

What is STEAM City Initiative? 

STEAM City is a participatory platform that invites communities to engage in conversations leading to collaborative projects, making intersections of STEAM visible while building awareness for STEAM across sectors. It is a loose framework built around the value of having healthy, inclusive cultures where we work and live.  

STEAM City Initiative is a way to regenerate communities, inviting in curiosity and creativity through a collaborative multi-sector approach to creating resilient local economies that leverage all our human potential. Our expectation is that this will be expressed in local projects and prototypes that include infrastructure building, placemaking, story sharing, mural creating, and supporting arts and culture. 

Though the concept of STEAM City is based on the importance of bringing creative voices into broader conversations, it is not solely focused on the arts. The goal is to drive economic and community health across sectors, engaging all systems and structures that drive vitality. For example, broadband access is a major challenge when it comes to helping small businesses and entrepreneurs thrive in rural areas. According to this recent report from CBS News, 35 percent of people in rural areas have no access to broadband Internet, compared with just 3 percent in urban areas. The ability to use high-speed Internet is crucial for rural entrepreneurs and remote workers. 

STEAM City Initiative is in what we call the invitation phase, as we begin conversations with communities around Minnesota. This idea isn't pre-cooked or cookie-cuttered. We understand that each city is unique, and we also know that there are larger patterns that show up consistently when communities are working to create a thriving future for the people and planet. STEAM City Initiative is designed by each community locally, with some core values and principles across the board. 

How does STEAM City benefit the people and organizations involved? 

Though we won't make assumptions about how each community will leverage STEAM, we anticipate that this work will have a meaningful impact on local residents and institutions across the board. New businesses are drawn to creative communities, and employees have an opportunity to be engaged in the community through entrepreneurial innovation.  

Nonprofits can find new opportunities to develop partnerships and multi-sector collaborations, and engage hard-to-reach populations in programs and services by providing additional outreach and engagement. Foundations can leverage local resources that benefit the community, and pursue a multi-sector approach for integrating community members and working toward sustainable communities and economies. 

For government, this type of work builds neighborhood resilience and creates a hub for the creative economy to emerge, providing workforce development along with economic and community development opportunities. Low- to moderate-income community members can build job skills and deepen local connections and relationships. Youth have the opportunity to engage in building community and to take learning outside of the classroom. Strengthening local community connections has tremendous impact on the health of a local community by reducing stress, increasing physical activities, and improving overall well-being. 

Again, this is the first step, an invitation — we will continue to explore this idea through open-ended conversations over the next several months. But I believe that the STEAM City Initiative is an opportunity not only to close that gap where the arts and creativity are missing, but also to magnify community potential and drive success and resilience for everyone involved. 

To be part of our first conversations about the STEAM City Initiative, sign up for "From STEM to STEAM: Building Creativity In Our City" in Mankato on September 13 or in St. Paul on September 25. More cities to come soon!