How STEAM is re-emphasizing creativity within the sciences.

Meet the new hackers.

by Sarah Forman | Mon, August 07, 2017

For those of us living outside the tech-sphere, the term “hacker” has come to carry many negative associations. Whether it be information theft, criminal behavior, or anything else, what we might not know is that at its origin, hacking is more about making and fixing than anything else.

Who are hackers?

Born out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1960s, the word “hacker” was used to describe those utilizing computer-programming knowledge to solve problems, either by overriding systems or circumventing programmatic barriers. It began to carry negative connotations early on and has since maintained its polarizing status. But recently, there has been a push to change that, inside and outside of the university’s walls.

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Jeremy Buckle is the Event Director for YoMo Shanghai, part of a global program partnered with GMSA that works to inspire the future generation of scientists, technologists and artists. The four-day interactive conference strives to push students towards finding new and better ways for us to imagine the future of cellular technology – what many have come to believe is the most essential tool of the 21st century.

Revolving around one of the pillars of the hacker imperative, YoMo engages their participants through hands-on, inquiry based learning experiences that address problems related to STEAM subjects, also known as:

  • Science
  • Technology
  • Engineering
  • Art 
  • Mathematics

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Historically, hard sciences have been treated as their own discreet set of disciplines, but those working in education and technology are now striving to include the arts in this grouping, advocating for an interdisciplinary and inclusive approach to quantitative subject matter. Through learning by doing and creative engagement, students become more comfortable asking and answering their own questions, turning theoretical problems into real world situations with attainable, and sometimes surprising, solutions.

Why STEAM?

When discussing the importance of art and design within STEM subjects, Buckle asserted:

“STEAM subjects drive forward the world we live in today ... Science and Mathematics are fundamentally important in almost every part of our daily lives. However, including the all important ‘A’, arts help us to show how new technology is transforming areas previously thought out of touch with or disconnected from core STEM sectors.” 

There is no question that our mobile phones and computers have become inseparable from our daily lives and, as a result, usability and presentation have become more important than ever. Years ago, titans like Steve Jobs argued that a more human-centric approach to technology was the way of the future; today, the synthesis of imagery and experience with our screens and personal needs is what continues to carry us forward.

Eduardo Alarcón, founder of TokyLabs and YoMo participant, developed the first Hackerspace in China, building a lab here in Shanghai for students to develop their through projects like building watches and robots. He elaborates to say that:

“Art and design help us discover new horizons, and question the status quo of thought ... By including this ingredient in STEM we get a spirit of exploration and innovation. Art and design are the tools that allow us to empathize with technical disciplines.”

Academic adjustments

For Alarcón and Buckle, art and design are what bring together the user and the technology itself. Recently, schools have followed suit by championing this new approach to STEM subjects. Vanke Bilingual School held a STEAM conference this past June, covering the importance of inter-disciplinary education and creating a forum for discussion surrounding classroom implementation within the various fields. This past April, Nord Anglia International School Shanghai, Pudong and The British International School, Puxi worked with undergraduate, graduate students and staff at the hacker hub, MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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While participating in STEAMFest at MIT, BISS and NAIS students had the opportunity to work on forward-looking activities that included bioengineering, coding and robotics. Year 7 BISS Puxi student, Alison Ohene-Djan, participated in the event, and said of the Biobuilder component:

“We learned about how, in the future, we will be able to take parts of cells, which perform a certain function, and build it to make a new cell. We used different shapes and colors to represent these different functions, and built a cell that would kill only cancer cells,”

utilizing visual learning to better understand how organic materials can be re-designed to complete specific tasks. By engaging in multiple forms of learning and incorporating the arts to do so, educators and technology enthusiasts are hacking the traditional education system, making way for new tools and avenues of exploration.

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“There is a worldwide known kind of hacker that sneaks behind your computer to steal your data. I call this a cyber-criminal,” says Alarcón. “To me, a hacker is a tinkerer. A hacker uses the resources around them to create, and their imagination to find new applications for everyday objects, tools and concepts. The inventor of the affordable 3D printer is a hacker, and the same kind of person invented the drone and many other cool things.” The way we talk and think about traditional quantitative sciences is changing and the introduction of art to the conversation is an important place to start.