In my previous post I featured a story about the sonification of climate data (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/sing-of-song-of-science/). A student created a simple cello piece from global temperature numbers over time. This story was covered widely by both the conventional media and the blogosphere. The resulting music was described as beautiful (http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-07/story-warming-climate-told-through-song) and haunting (http://iamchiq.fooyoh.com/iamchiq_living_lifestyle/8555284). The wide coverage of the piece indicates that it was successful in increasing the communication of the climate change message to the general public, which was, in fact, the goal of the exercise.
But one blogger, Smashly, pointed out that the resulting cello piece, while showing great initiative and some creativity, didn’t actually qualify as great, or even really good, music (http://madartlab.com/2013/07/04/more-adventures-in-terrible-data-sonification/). I’d have to agree. I doubt that it would have been described positively by folks who heard it if they hadn’t known the backstory. She calls for musicians to take up the challenge to make data sound like real, truly moving music by, to start, finding the right chords to put behind the notes that represent the numbers. Andrew Revin of the New York Times made a similar point (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/global-warming-trend-and-variations-charted-by-cello/?_r=0). NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt has proposed a symphonic approach to climate change communication (http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/blogs/earthmatters/2011/10/13/news-roundup-when-music-and-climate-change-meet-a-hair-below-a-sea-ice-record-and-more/).
So what does this mean for educators? Does the art produced through STEAM have to be any good? Some folks have asked me about assessment — how can STEM professors assess the art that’s produced through STEAM projects? These are my thoughts:
1. Perhaps we don’t have to – it’s possible to focus on the STEM content alone. I’ve done that and it worked well.
2. If one purpose of including art is to communicate the science to a general audience, that aspect could be assessed through surveys. The audience could be surveyed regarding knowledge and opinions before and after exposure to the art. In many cases, better art would equate with better communication.
3. In some cases the STEM professor is also an artist, and could bring that expertise to the development and assessment of the course.
4. A STEM professor and an art professor could collaborate on a STEAM course.
5. A STEM and an art class could be combined for a joint project as we saw at DePauw University (https://stemtosteamihe.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/the-use-of-sculpture-to-teach-protein-folding/).
So, no, I don’t think that the resulting art necessarily has to be good. If good art is one of your teaching goals, then you’ll need to build that into the course in formal way. Maybe you’ll make a new friend in the Art, Music, or Theater Department!