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G-Sync: STEAM energy is the answer

The world has been engaged in a talent and innovation battle for decades and STEM education has been the weapon of choice. But this is all about to change...that is, if we are willing to make the change. Lifestyle Editor Tommy Allen comes out about the silent "A" and our new weapon of change: STEAM.
In recent years, a group in our society, once relegated to fringe, has begun to emerge into the light. It is possible to spot them in the city, and if you listen close enough you might overhear a bit about their silent revolution already afoot in West Michigan or notice them advancing a mission based on greater inclusion -- all the while getting mad props from their growing crowd of cheerleaders.
Right now, I bet you are probably thinking of everything but the "thing" I want you to notice: the silent "A" in STEM and our need to create more STEAM opportunities here if we are to achieve our goals. Because as more folks jump on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education bandwagon, it becomes clear that if we are to remain competitive we need to ask what makes us stand out from the hundreds upon hundreds of programmatic initiatives all over the world. To give ourselves a competitive advantage, we need to talk about how the addition of the "A" (Art and Design) will put us ahead of the curve. 
Before we can begin, we must understand a bit about what the "A" in STEAM really means. 
Creativity drives so much of what we see around us, from physical spaces to conversations to new possessions and habits. For example, we never knew that we needed a handheld phone that operates like a computer until we actually had one in our midst. Now try and imagine a world without it.
Design thinking will help us solve the complex challenges we are facing as society -- and for STEM principals to be effectively translated, we need the arts to make it happen. Key components of the "A's" contribution can produce inventive, flexible thinking, without-a-net risk taking, and most importantly, the ability to put problem-solving techniques into practice.
In the race for talent and the need for a skilled work force, the massive adoption of STEM is everywhere. And yet, for us to have an advantage, we need to up the ante and take the plunge, adding STEAM to our community's goals.
According to John Berry of Grand Valley State University, the history of STEM is rooted in the pursuit of innovation. He says by adding the arts we are infusing a fundamentally important process of creativity that assists us in breaking through to something new. Heck, even the world STEAM is closely associated with not just a quickly dissipating form of transformation but also has been used to power our society in the physical sense of the word.
"In my lifetime, I have been able to witness the most creative results come, quite frankly, when dissimilar disciplines are working together toward the solving of a common problem," says Berry, whose previous work experience included time within West Michigan's furniture industry as well as with Design West Michigan.
Berry believes that STEM education can be rigid because of the nature of those fields, but the addition of arts and design humanizes those areas. Through the injection of design, a new by-product emerges: empathy – a valuable and core feature to innovation.
As a listener of culture, I, too, have seen many examples over the years where the addition of the "A" into our growing STEM ecosystem is already at work. Many examples appeared to me as the Ghosts of STEAM possibilities, not unlike the three spirits in the beloved Dickens tale, each presenting an opportunity consider a deeper meaning.
The first appeared when an artist (painter) shared that he had been hired to sit on a local corporate board and listen to how they worked. Later, after listening to proposals and other projects within the firm, he was invited to give feedback. His role was very simple: He was invited to facilitate new paths of thinking because he contributed an outsider perspective as well as a filtering system that artists often use in the creation of their work. And as an added bonus, "pick your brain" finally was financially compensated for his valuable contributions to these sessions.
This is something that Berry says is the attraction of changing over to a STEAM model, as the creatives among us most often have to cross from the land of the right brain to the left, where much of our STEM education is currently focused.
My second observation came while touring GR Current's medical incubator space on Michigan St. The challenge to my thinking emerged as I listened to the science-based community and I encountered Stan Samuels, a scientist and (now) Interim Executive Director of GR Current, whose medical startup has recently relocated to our city.
From the beginning, this research-based scientist placed an artist on contract to assist his team with the design thinking process that is so critical to any discovery – all in an effort to ensure his team didn't miss any pathways to a breakthrough.  
"The A in STEAM ushers in unconventional thought, the different path that many in my field do not see comfortably rise," says Samuels. "The arts way of thinking can illuminate a viewpoint for us where we benefit in STEM giving us an advantage globally. Human behavior seeks by nature that path which is comfortable."
Berry says such a radical addition to STEM creates broader thinking around any topic. When the design thinking process is invited to the table, we learn to ask really good questions. We break down our closed networks and open up to disruptive and healthy new ways of thought. Talk to any trainer or dietician in this city and they will tell you the dangers of not changing your game, as the body can become resistant to changes that once produced results.
My last spirit was revealed during a friendly conversation with Jane Gietzen, Spectrum Health's director of information services.
Well-known in our region for her past service as the Vice President of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board, Gietzen has ramped up her mission to create greater opportunities for the city's next generation of residents, often speaking to groups about the challenges we are presently facing and will face in our future. She recognizes the challenge we're facing in having a work force ready to fill the STEM jobs in our near future, but says we also need to be thinking of how we will begin to attract and retain women and communities of color in these fields that are very male dominated at the moment.
"Here at Spectrum we employ more than 800 people in the IT department," says Gietzen, "but our need for talent will only grow as we grow. And as we grow so will our city.  We have to be active in encouraging and attracting the next generation of women and communities of color to consider this path of opportunity."
Gietzen believes for our talent goals to be reached, we must engage on many levels with one of the best paths being employing grassroots outreach to create real impact.
And here she is spot-on, as many women and people of color in positions of power, from large firms like OST and Spectrum right down to smaller independent organizations, maker groups, and West Michigan Tech Talent, are moving forward to make a greater impact.
Attracting and retaining women and communities of color to STEM and STEAM positions is not just a local problem, but it is one area where Gietzen believes we are beginning to make an impact locally. For Gietzen, this reordering of the education deck is not something that is scary, but rather a part of the natural order of things as the addition of design thinking presents an opportunity. Her perspective comes partly from her role at work and partly from her home experience.
Her daughter, hoping to become a student at Kendal College of Art and Design, wants to explore her creative side -- but will need to pull in her love of science to pursue her career as a medical illustrator.
But Gietzen offers a word of caution that I think is worth sharing in this potential transition from STEM to STEAM.
"As I watch my daughter work on a project, it becomes very clear that the design thinking mind of the artist is wired differently than my tech science mind," says Gietzen. "We are both devoted to the goal of outcomes but I must be willing to let her mind wander where it does if we are together to create a benefit."
Samuels reminds us that STEM education is worldwide. He speaks from an informed place of authority, having been educated as a child in STEM a few decades ago. He believes that STEAM adoption gives us a competitive advantage that can be seen easily on this interactive map
I, too, understand this now more and more as I break the mold others have created for me. Those of us who hail from the "A" need to be engaged more in the process of reshaping our city and not just relegated to the decorative roles we have often played in the past. For STEAM to work, we will need not just an appreciation of those practicing design thinking here, but we need to reward them as we do the other fields.
We need to recognize, as so many other cities are beginning to do, that design thinking is a key differentiator in shortening the distance to innovation … and may just be the stuff that could transform our entire region for the better. 
At least, that is how I imagine it could be, based on my years of listening to the ghostly ideas already walking among us. 
The Future Needs All of Us.
Tommy Allen
Lifestyle Editor (and STEAM Advocate)
Ever wonder what you should not miss when seeking a diverse urban experience? The easy path to the most exciting entertainment events can be found here: G-Sync Events: Let's Do This! (Think of it as place making activities disguised as fun.)

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