Adding the arts to technical skills can generate more productivity, innovation

Man painting outside

by Stuart G. Walesh, PhD, PE

In 1871, engineer James Watt patented a steam engine that produced continuous rotary motion. Steam engines both figuratively and literally drove the Industrial Revolution and introduced the expression “build a head of steam.”

When critical pressure is applied to pistons, things happen. Construction-sector professionals and organizations must strive to achieve the same momentum by building a head of STEAM – that is, by adding the “A” to STEM, the already-developed skill levels of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

That “A” is knowledge of and skill in the arts. The combination may seem odd to those who have a technology-focused education. But, by embracing the broad and exploratory STEAM mindset and engaging both sides of our individual and collective brains, we can generate more personal and organizational productivity, innovation and enhanced service for clients, customers and stakeholders.

Promoting better connections

A STEAM perspective provides a clearer understanding of how almost everything connects with everything else to the extent that science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics help us comprehend the increasingly complex world in which we live. The “everything is connected to everything” realization enables individuals and organizations to be more aware of the consequences of actions and empowers us to recognize many and varied opportunities.

Lightbulb off with circles around it

Studies show that homogeneous teams – made up of those only STEM-skilled or only arts-oriented – tend to experience high communication effectiveness and require little time to make decisions. Unfortunately, they may produce results that are low in creativity or innovation. In contrast, heterogeneous teams comprised of both STEM and arts members take longer to make decisions but may arrive at more creative and innovative results.

If you’re deeply into STEM by virtue of interest or vocation, on a whim, enroll in a one-day drawing class or sign up for ballroom dancing lessons. Urge deeply arts-focused colleagues to read some science and engineering articles, audit an engineering class or visit an automobile manufacturing plant. To those in leadership or management positions, help your personnel understand STEAM and how embracing it could benefit them, their employers and those they serve. Ask colleagues to share their art or STEM passions at “brown bag” lunch sessions. You and others will be surprised and inspired by the variety of talents in your midst.

About the author: Stuart G. Walesh is an independent consultant, teacher and writer who has worked in engineering, government and academia. This viewpoint is adapted from his book Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers. An edited version also appeared in Engineering News-Record’s magazine in December 2017.

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