Gathering STEAM:

Using the Arts to Expand Public Interest in

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math


Marjory Blumenthal, Former Executive Director of the National Academy of Science Computer Science and Telecommunications Board

Ken Goldberg, UC Berkeley

October 2010


The United States is competing in an increasingly connected and diverse world.  Our global leadership in science and technology is being challenged as other countries make major national investments in education, research, and innovation:  "To reverse the foreboding outlook will require a sustained commitment by both individual citizens and government officials at all levels."[1]  It is vital to set national research and education priorities that can effectively respond to these challenges.   Yet the first decade of the 21st Century has been dominated by political and social polarization, fragmentation, and disconnects.  New strategies and approaches are needed.


U.S. creativity in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is flourishing.  Many innovations result from collaborations among specialists with different backgrounds; almost all scientists and engineers recognize the power of collaboration and communication across STEM disciplines.  The National Science Foundation (NSF) has established a number of successful programs that emphasize cross-cutting research among STEM areas.  NSF's Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) has often led the way, encouraging new applications for information technology.  Yet the challenge remains: research results are often complex and arcane:  how to make them accessible to American taxpayers and to future students?


The Arts are another area where American creativity is flourishing.  Brilliant and highly original novels, plays, films, and artworks engage and inspire audiences around the world.  The fields of architecture, graphics, and industrial design are also thriving.    The best artists excel at highly unconventional, unorthodox thinking.  They also are excellent at capturing and representing the zeitgeist in elegant compelling ways.  Artworks often involve collaborations.


These trends offer a historic opportunity for leaders from the Arts and the Sciences to begin a new series of conversations and collaborations.  Inspired by discussions at a September 2010 NSF-NEA joint workshop, we propose using the acronym STEAM as a shorthand to describe new collaborative initiatives that use the Arts as a bridge to engage students and citizens with STEM topics. Some examples where works of art have addressed STEM topics:

o   Doctor Atomic, opera about the Manhattan Project

o   Breaking the Code, Broadway play about Alan Turing

o   The Social Network, film by Aaron Sorkin

o   A Beautiful Mind, film and book biography of John Nash

o   Laurie Anderson as NASA Artist in Residence

o   LOGICOMIX, graphical novel about the history of Logic


Next Steps


In the early 2000s, the value of linking computer science and the arts was recognized beyond the niches of computer graphics and computer music.  The Rockefeller Foundation commissioned a study by the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies.  Their report, Beyond Productivity (2003),[2] spurred the Creative-IT program at NSF.[3]  In the ensuing years, the political and technological landscapes have changed dramatically. 


We propose convening a blue-ribbon, cross-disciplinary panel to explore the potential for STEAM and to formulate recommendations for action.  The panel should:



Ken Goldberg <>

Marjory Blumenthal < >


[1] Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, National Academies Press, 2010.

[2] See and

[3] See, solicitation 09-572.