My father, a retired industrial designer, claims that the seeds of his career were sown during the hundreds of hours he spent building soapbox derby cars with his dad. My grandfather taught his sons every step of building a car in their pursuit of a national soapbox derby championship. By the time they qualified–my uncle Steve in 1957 and my father in 1959–they were skilled in every aspect of design and construction. My father describes their hours of work together as some of the most enjoyable and rewarding of his life:
Dad taught me that a methodology could be applied to any creative task. Ideas could be developed, finalized, and evaluated following a set of logical steps, and he taught me to sketch ideas, make construction drawings, and evaluate concept models. The build required me to master skills and develop an understanding of materials. Dad taught me to work with wood, metal, and plastics, and I learned how to weld, solder, machine metal and wood, upholster, and paint. I completed these tasks under his watchful eye, until I had mastered the tools and the process.
Years later, when my father went to graduate school for his master’s in industrial design, he had a leg up on his classmates when it came to the most important part of the design process: turning ideas into useful products. The tools of his profession may have changed; foam-core models labeled with Letraset have given way to digital 3-D rendering, but the process of design and product innovation remains the same.
My father’s experience highlights an important truth: Creativity alone does not foster innovation, nor do abstract scientific or mathematical concepts. Innovators also need to know how to render those creative ideas into working products that can be put into use.
In order to bridge the chasm between abstract idea and utility, some educators are advocating for an expansion of the popular STEM acronym—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, the list of skills many experts believe more students need. They believe STEM should include the letter 'A' for "art and design." As Margaret Honey, CEO of the New York Hall of Science commented in an STEAM workshop at the Rhode Island School of Design, "It’s not about adding on arts education. It’s about fundamentally changing education to incorporate the experimentation and exploration that is at the heart of effective education."