article Featured Spring 2024

Progress STEMming from Art

The interweaving of art and STEM topics as shown by the UW-Madison Design Hub and Chemistry Department

Is there truly a difference between STEM and STEAM? Topics involving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are often thought of as entirely separate from art. However, art is a fundamental part of the projects that occur in the UW-Madison Design Hub.

Design engineer, Jesse Darley, who provides design consultations for students using the Design Hub, observes that art in the Design Hub can be found in intuitive processes of project development, rather than the traditional art of aesthetic expression.

Recently, Darley worked with a paraplegic business student to create an accessible fire extinguisher after he almost started a fire in his apartment. Together they are designing an adapter for a fire extinguisher that he could grab with his elbow and pull the pin with his mouth.

Though not an engineering student, Darley has noticed that he particularly succeeds in the more creative side of the project. 

“[The student] doesn’t know how to do a beam-bending calculation like a mechanical engineering undergrad might,” says Darley. “[However,] he can think through the rules that would govern designing something for special needs.”      

The intuition this student possesses is heavily used in the design method process. 

 “[Creativity is] not a linear process, it’s an iterative loop which leaves time for redesign and discovery.”

Jesse Darley

This process contrasts the scientific method, which centers on testing hypotheses and obtaining data rather than using design loops to seek a desired outcome. This implies that art, which focuses on creativity, is more essential in projects seeking a specified goal than for those that are more research-based.

However, others argue that art can be essential to research. Chemistry professor and composer, John Berry, believes there are “both technical and creative similarities” between chemical research and musical composition.

As a composer, Berry finds that “creativity drives the creation of new music.” He notices this creativity is paralleled by the creativity used to make molecules in his research group. Berry describes the creativity used to make these molecules as “not too different from the design aspects of a new composition.”

There is also a technical connection between research and musical composition. “Chemistry is a lot about problem solving and trying to come up with new solutions to solve problems, and the same can be said of musical composition,” Berry states.

Berry further emphasizes this connection using his compositions and calculations. “You can use different mathematical ideas to transform musical themes in the same way that we use mathematical matrices in studying molecular structures.”

Though linked in different ways, art is equally relevant to Darley’s work in the Design Lab and Berry’s molecule building. This connection, which is prevalent in many other STEM related projects, makes a strong case for the use of the term “STEAM” over “STEM.”

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