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From STEM to STEAM: Young artists can become engineers, too

Molly Nicholas is an engineer at Qualcomm Technologies, where, among other projects, she’s created control apps for the FIRST Tech Challenge and invented the Qbadge. She also volunteers regularly at the Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab and is a Geek in Residence at San Diego’s FabLab. In a previous life, she was a professional clown. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

When people think of engineering, they sometimes think it’s about finding a single correct answer to a problem — we’re all taught that one plus one always equals two. While it’s true that, in many cases, there may be only one solution (in basic algebra, for example, there really is only one correct value for “x”), we often forget that there are many different and interesting ways to get there. In computer science fields, we’re just beginning to explore different ways to solve a major problem: There aren’t enough engineers entering the workforce.

Too many educators and parents have one-track minds about how to engage kids in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) topics. They give them LEGOs, Erector sets, and robots that teach code and hope they’ve covered all their bases. Like the challenges professional engineers face, inspiring kids to consider careers in STEM requires a multi-faceted approach. A one-size-fits-all mindset misses wide swaths of future coders. It misses freeform, creative, artful thinkers. It almost missed me.

As a kid, none of the “future engineer” stereotypes applied to me. I had no interest in mainstream “engineering” toys; the last thing I wanted was to sit down and follow pages of step-by-step instructions to build a robot or car that someone else designed. I hated math and found science generally frustrating. Eventually, I left college to train and work as a clown in my early 20s.

What was lost on me for a long time was the idea that creativity and engineering are connected. A friend talked me into taking my first computer science class as an undergrad by explaining to me that it was just like solving puzzles, which he knew I loved. Looking back, it’s obvious that solving puzzles — finding creative ways to answer open-ended questions — is a lot of what programming is. It's not strange to think that I ended up as an engineer. It’s strange that I missed that path for so many years.

I was lucky to have stumbled into engineering the way I did, but it makes me wonder what would have worked to get me excited about it as a kid. What if there had been engineering toys with an artistic bent?

Today, more toy makers and researchers are exploring this idea. The LilyPad, a system of Arduino-based “sewable circuits,” allows for more open-ended creativity. People have sewn the circuit boards into backpacks, dresses, pillows and stuffed animals. One project embedded sensors in ballet shoes to convert a ballerina’s movements into digital artwork. And Circuit Scribe allows folks to doodle their creations using conductive ink, so they can create light-up greeting cards or add light and motion effects to construction projects

Working in these media feels like crafting. At the same time, their artistic and approachable nature doesn’t preclude a strong technical understanding; you still need to know how a circuit works for your creation to come to life. All told, success with these tools requires a greater mix of technical and creative thinking.

Even if these artistic-electronic toys don’t convert kids into future engineers, the concepts and thinking involved are valuable to any number of seemingly unrelated fields. Computer science, for example, teaches computational thinking, a set of tools that focuses on pattern recognition, breaking big problems down into smaller ones, and solving open-ended questions. Anyone — an artist, a doctor, or a city planner — can leverage those skills in his or her work. A painter trained in computational thinking may invent a new type of paintbrush that enables unique modes of expression. Or a theatrical costume designer might develop a method to make her creations modular and reusable.

No matter the vocation, a basic level of technical knowledge is quickly becoming essential for the modern workforce. Our ultimate goal should be to get different types of people trained to think computationally, because someone who wants to build a programmable puppet is a really different kind of thinker from someone who wants to build a robot. Neither result is right or wrong — in fact, learnings from one might even compliment the other. A hardware engineer, for instance, might not be pushed to advance and adapt technologies without creative minds to test the limits. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how powerful your processor is if no one's using it for anything.

Molly Nicholas
Engineer, Research and Development, Qualcomm Technologies
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