The art of science

The merging of science with creative thinking is an idea whose time has come. Welcome to the age of STEAM.

The Arts of Science

Leonardo da Vinci may have been the first, but it wasn’t until Steve Jobs and the Cookie Monster began talking about it that people started taking it seriously. Welcome to the age of STEAM: that’s STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – with added Art. Or, to put it another way, the marriage of the so-called soft skills of artists and designers into the multiple hard-skill mix required by traditional STEM subjects.

It’s certainly an idea whose time has come. STEAM is now becoming a global movement, embraced by everyone from educationalists to tech giants. And it’s easy to see why the thinking behind STEAM has become such an intense area of interest for educators, thinkers and businesses: a new world is going to need new ways of thinking.

It’s why Steve Jobs attributed the success of the first Apple Macintosh to the fact that the people working on it were “musicians and poets and artists and zoologists and historians, who also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world”. And why, in 2016, legendary educational programme Sesame Street announced that it would start integrating STEAM into its curriculum. As 19th century photographer Charles Nègre said: “Where science ends, art begins.”

Back in 2004, Stephany van Willigenburg, Class of 1998 (1992-98), joined a vibrant startup called Google. She’s still there, as Senior Industry Head looking after the UK’s largest travel clients. And she’s excited about the possibilities of STEAM: “I think it makes a lot of sense,” says Stephany. “From a tech company perspective, you need people who can look at things from a different perspective and from a different creative angle. Do you look at the opposite of the challenge? The extreme? The weird and wacky? Sometimes that’s how new products get invented.” She points to Google’s ‘10x’ approach – don’t aim to make something 10 per cent better, make it 10 times better.

“We can take this extreme approach in some of our more experimental products. For example, to make an engine 10 per cent better, you could tweak it. But if you want to make it 10 times better, perhaps you disassemble it and look at it inside, outside, backwards, forwards. Hey, maybe we don’t even need gas. Maybe we need a battery. And suddenly you’re looking at it from all angles.”

STEAM chimes with a rising generation for whom cross-sector thinking has become the norm, and who reject the idea of a job for life in favour of a portfolio career. Millian Gehrer, Class of 2016 (2002-16), is currently juggling his economics undergraduate degree at Princeton in the US with his role as an Associate at venture capital fund Kairos Society Ventures. If that isn’t enough, he’s also working on his own project in the healthcare space – Triage Analytics, software to enable more accurate and efficient triage in emergency rooms and hospitals. “What I really want to do is be involved in solving big problems and rethinking old industries that haven’t seen a lot of innovation in the last few decades,” he says. “I’m not so interested in a traditional career path, like being a lawyer. My parents are just starting to get their heads around it!”

The arts were an integral part of Millian’s education at ZIS, but he’s only now starting to appreciate their value, not just as a creative outlet but also as a way of seeing. Take consumer-centred product design, creating something with the end user in mind. It takes not just technical wizardry but empathy.

“There’s a big difference between having a functional product that sufficiently completes a purpose and one that is a pleasure to use,” says Millian. “When I’m working on my healthcare app, I’m asking not just what should the options on the screen be but what is the best way to lay them out for a nurse or a doctor in a high-pressure situation? What are the most appropriate visual and audio cues? What is the clearest wording?”

He quotes Warren Buffet’s famous maxim: “Don’t just satisfy your customers, delight them.” “If you’re trying to make something really stand out, the creative aspect is so important,” says Millian. “Creativity is about having the courage to stand apart from traditional ways of thinking and recognising new opportunities. In the arts, you find your own truth and meaning – that’s something that’s been very inspiring to me. Science and tech give us tools – the ‘how’ – but creativity should give us purpose – the ‘why’ – and inspire us to ask how can we combine these skills in new ways to solve problems.”

The ZIS Innovates Maker Experience Committee feeds into the STEAM agenda. It was set up to further the breadth and depth of curricular and co-curricular maker experiences at the school. The committee defines a Maker Experience as a learning experience where something purposeful is designed and created. Through inquiry, the designer may collaborate and share skills.

According to Jamie Raskin, Grade 5 teacher and Chair of the ZIS Innovates Makers’ Committee: “STEAM represents a range of skills and areas of learning that are highly transferable, and predicted to be of great social, personal and economic value in the future.

“Makers is a pretty broad definition, and people apply it in lots of different ways,” he says. “There’s the analogue, hands-on and all the tech-driven stuff, such as coding, as well. We’re looking for experiences that involve this notion of prototyping something, testing it, refining it and moving it on. That could be a cupcake recipe, it could be cutting hair, it could be programming an app.

“It’s about what we’d call playful prototyping and growth mindset, being open to the improvement of process and of product, but also being super process driven. We often talk about a design cycle: starting with some kind of empathetic impulse, seeing a need for something or having a passion that you want to explore, and coming up with ideas for what could suit that.”

Lower School Art teacher Elif Raskin agrees. Even scientists need a way to visualise their work, she says. “Look at da Vinci – he was a mathematician, an engineer, a maker, a designer and an artist. And we know him mostly as an artist. But he had all these other skills and qualities. That’s what our students need to be in the future. We need Leonardos!”

Of course, creative thinking is nothing new and already exists in many fields, even those not traditionally thought of as ‘creative’. Engineers do it all the time, points out Nick Bentley, Class of 2005 (1999-2005), Petrochemical Engineer at Faroe Petroleum. He works mainly on projects in older oil and gas fields, working out how to make the most of the resources still available. “So it’s a lot of: what can we do to make things better? Should we be happy with the status quo?”

Boiled down to its simplest form, he says, engineering is “problem-solving with a fancy name and a bit of maths thrown in”. And finding solutions involves creative thinking. “It might be that you go for some fairly left-field ideas. They may sound a bit crazy. But once you think about them, they start to make sense. You try them out and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t work. If they don’t work, you go away and you figure out why they didn’t work and if there’s anything you could have done to make it a little bit better.”

Creative thinking has also become second nature for those operating in rapidly changing areas, where there’s no such thing as a traditional role. Working in the mobile games space has taught Kristina Donzelli, Class of 1996 (1988-96) and now Executive Producer at Stockholm computer games company Star Stable Entertainment, to iterate constantly. The sector doesn’t just need to anticipate advances in technology itself but also how that tech will be used by consumers and marketers alike. “So much has happened in the past 10 years: the iPhone, apps – it’s ever-evolving,” she says. “There are all these new, creative ways to market various types of products: using YouTube influencers, for example.

It can make a huge difference.” The generation that’s coming now is very much into creating things and then sharing them, says Kristina: “But they’ve seen millennials before them make mistakes and reveal too much of themselves. So they like social media that’s more contained, like Whisper and Snapchat. With every product you think: how can we adapt this game so that people will want to share this, and how can we bring in a creative aspect?”

Whatever the future holds, the chances are that it will be STEAM powered. Millian believes that future makers and thinkers will need to work out how to be more creative with what we already have. “Now that tech can help us do all these productive tasks, what is our role as human beings?” he says. “I think that people will be turning more to the arts and to creative disciplines to help us find creative solutions and better understand ourselves.”

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Science and tech give us tools but creativity gives us purpose - the chance to ask how can we combine these skills to solve problems in new ways

Millian Gehrer, Class of 2016


Lower School students can take full advantage of a Makerspace Workshop and Tinker Lab, developed from a makeshift space three years ago. With financial support through the ZIS Annual Fund, the Workshop is equipped with workbenches, a range of tools, wood, plastic, cardboard and other supplies, and offers students in every grade a chance to design and create as part of their art classes. Students can also be found at lunch disassembling appliances and exploring computer circuits in the experimental Tinker Lab.

At the Middle School campus, the F1 in Schools project introduces students to real-life applications of physics and mathematics. Through computeraided design, and construction techniques using laser cutters and 3D printers, they create miniature Formula One cars for races. The Middle School also offers an elective for students to build and programme robots.

The Upper School Makerspace will include additional applied design classes, adding new wood-working machines as well as a weather station and electrical experimental sets. Field trips to a networking foundry and building supply store begin the journey from student design to completion.

The 2017/18 ZIS Annual Fund asks parents and alumni to support STEAM projects throughout the school. Visit