Providence forum explores the intersection of art and science

RISD Stem to Steam
By Linda Borg

Art and design matter. They are essential to innovation, jobs creation and helping scientists visualize their research.

“To remain competitive, we need to include art and design in our conversation on innovation,” said John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School for Design. “Our economy will come back through innovation.”

Scientists, educators, business leaders and artists gathered at The Rhode Island Foundation Monday to discuss how to incorporate art and design into the study of the sciences, dubbed STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The forum, STEM to STEAM, brought together panelists from RISD, industry and the state Department of Education to ponder how design can be used to illustrate and expand upon scientific research.

Saul Kaplan, the founder of the Business Innovation Factory, said Rhode Island’s size can be used to its advantage –– to further collaboration between the world of design and the world of technology.

“Where we can succeed is in the gray areas between sectors,” he said. “We spend far too little time colliding outside our individual silos.”

No one, he said, is passionate about creating an innovative economy, yet art and design are instrumental to releasing that passion.

The hard truth is that the public schools, particularly the urban districts, have no time in their instructional day to add art to the curriculum, according to Andrea Castaneda, chief of the Department of Accelerating School Performance.

School leaders must figure out how to include art in the core curriculum if they want students to be able to be able to think imaginatively.

“What we have been doing is simply not getting the job done,” Castaneda told a crowd of about 100 people.

RISD is already breaking ground in the area of using design to produce better science, according to Charlie Cannon, an associate professor of industrial design. RISD, for example, is working with Brown University and the University of Rhode Island to study the impact of climate change on marine life.

“Our role,” Cannon said, “is to make the science visible.”

Art can also be used to help scientists communicate across disciplines, and it can be a great way to explain scientific research to the public.

The final panelist, Stephen Lane, CEO of Ximedica, an engineering and technology company, said art should be at the top of the business food chain.

In education, he said, art is where schools capture students’ interests. Nurturing an interest in design –– filmmaking or music–– gives students a pathway to science and technology.

The forum was sponsored by U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin, RISD, The Rhode Island Foundation, Rhode Island College, the Rhode Island Science and Technology Council and the state Department of Education.