Art Works Blog

Full STEAM ahead at A Better World by Design

Sophie (left) and Joanna at the 2012 A Better World by Design Conference. Photo courtesy of conference staff

Introduced via song by Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) student Andreas Nicholas---a prelude fit for a former Broadway producer---NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman took the stage last weekend at Brown University and RISD's A Better World by Design conference. Chairman Landesman spoke to a crowd of students, professionals, and community members interested in the intersection of design and social and environmental justice.

What started in 2008 as a project by a handful of Brown and RISD students who wanted to go beyond what their formal education had to offer has evolved into an “annual critically acclaimed conference” bringing in presenters and attendees from across the country and world. But it all began with four students and a desire to explore the real-world application of design to real issues. From this---A Better World by Design was born: a platform to share, play, discuss, present, mull, eat, build, make.

In only four years, the conference has grown immensely---from 300 attendees to 1,000 in 2010. But it's not the numbers. It's the connections, relationships, ideas to be built. It’s asking expert panelists about architectural building standards, striking up conversations at evening social events, questioning the business structure of a new social entrepreneurship venture, sharing YouTube clips over a picnic lunch, discussing a future project at the Sunday design expo.

But as much as we love this conference and can wax poetic for pages more, we know it’s not about the three-day event. It’s about the next three years, the next three decades, the next three centuries---building a better future. We genuinely hope the weekend can be a part of that, inspiring, informing, and motivating what’s to come.

And that's why we were so excited to have Chairman Landesman present a vision for a comprehensive arts education alongside standard STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum. It's a design for a future in which the level of learning and conversation is more creative than ever before.

Chairman Landesman began with a statement that everyone could agree on. “The arts are fundamental and basic---every culture, no matter when or where, has art.” The seemingly disparate ideas of “fine art’ and design---a field often dominated by urban planners, architects, and industrial designs---could appear a bit incongruous at first. But the Chairman aptly pointed out, “Design is the intersection between the arts and the general public. People come into contact with the arts through design. They see urban planning, architecture, cars, aesthetics---whether they like it or not.” So, yes, we experience the world, and thus we see art, through the clear and omnipresent window of design. The important thing, Chairman Landesman stressed, is how we use design to reframe our viewpoint.

Art should not be an isolated field, something that school children experience once per week for half an hour as a “crafts-in-a-cart” classroom diversion. Art, and the creativity and passion that drives it, should help us see everything in a fresh light---especially, he said, the field of education. Fostering creativity is a skill that can be applied to science and art. “The focus has been on science, math, more technical [subjects] with the idea that it will help us economically and competitively worldwide,” explained Chairman Landesman. “Arts education creates more creative scientists and mathematicians.” The fact is arts and the sciences are not mutually exclusive; truly, they are inextricably linked.

Sadly, the focus on STEM often equates to a trade-off with the arts. And by trade-off, we mean, no art. We need to put the arts back into the spotlight in order to foster more passionate, creative students in all disciplines. STE(A)M > STEM.

How can we position the intersection between arts and the public to create a better world? Chairman Landesman outlined his hopes of improving arts education at all levels of schooling, nurturing creativity that can be applied to a variety of fields, from self-expression to gene-expression. Landesman spoke on the need to vigorously measure the quality of arts education and get more art teachers in our classrooms, providing them with the proper training and support to do their jobs. “You can have Anton Chekov going into the schools, but if he doesn’t know how to teach…” he quipped. We need parents, teachers, and policy-makers alike to “pound the table” for arts education, and we need both public and private partnerships to make it happen. To us, it sounded very much like design for a better world.

Full STEAM ahead.

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