KnowAtom's Blog

Dr. Stephen Immerman: Where Art, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Connect as STEAM

Posted by Sara Goodman on Mar 18, 2016



"When we codify, we run the risk of losing innovation. That's why you see so many technical companies now hiring artists, because the opportunity to include problem solvers that potentially think differently. Innovation and creativity go hand in hand. There's no question about it. As members of society, we have a responsibility to leave the next generation better off than we found it, and I think we run the risk of losing that capacity by homogenizing and standardizing." -Dr. Stephen Immerman

KnowAtom CEO Francis Vigeant discusses the connection of art to science, technology, engineering and math in K-12 classrooms with special guest Dr. Stephen Immerman, president of Montserrat College of Art in Massachusetts. 

In this transcript of their conversation, you'll read about:

• Beyond aesthetics: What is art?

• Why STEM educators are welcoming art and calling it "STEAM"

• How art education can leverage science and engineering practices

• Where you can get involved in the national movement from STEM to STEAM



Francis Vigeant: Hi, and thank you for joining us for this exciting discussion about the connection between STEM and the arts. I'm Francis Vigeant, CEO here at KnowAtom. Thank you for joining us.

Just to kick off our discussion, I'd like to let you know a little bit about what KnowAtom is, and also why we're talking about art if you're not familiar with it.

KnowAtom is an organization where educators that are focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, and helping specifically public-education classrooms not only meet the needs of policy, but really focus on creating a space where students are able to create, evaluate, and analyze simultaneously by putting them in the role of scientist and engineer and engaging them hands on as scientists and engineers on an everyday basis.

Why we're talking about art is really to consider that crossover between STEM and the arts, which many are now calling STEAM, because we know, especially under the next generation science standards, that we have an actual definition for science and engineering and the nature of the relationship between science and engineering. That being scientists really seeking to ask questions and solve them through the use of experimentation, and engineers seeking to use that knowledge to solve problems. I think what's often overlooked in this relationship is the role of communication and in the role of how that communication helps scientists, helps engineers, and really accelerates this sort of STEM cycle that we see.

Our special guest here today is Dr. Stephen Immerman, president of the Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, Mass. Steve has an interesting background that crosses art, science, and education. Prior to his current appointment as president of Montserrat College of Art in 2009, he served 30 years at MIT, where he was an active and celebrated member of the MIT community.

Among his many accolades, Steve received the MIT Excellence Award and was elected as an honorary member to the MIT Association of Alumni. His most recent role at MIT was as senior associate dean for student development. Steve holds a Doctor of Education from the University of Pennsylvania, certificates in leadership from MIT, and management from Sloan School of Management at MIT, a Master of Science and Education from the University of New York Albany, and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the State University of New York Potsdam.

In 2015, our present Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, appointed Dr. Immerman to the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He also serves on many community and national boards, including the Board of the Massachusetts Creative Network Commission, and the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design.

We're really honored to have Dr. Immerman here with us to discuss the deep connection between the next generation of scientific thinking, and the role of art as we consider what it means to shift from STEM to STEAM. Steve, thank you very much for joining us.

Dr. Immerman: You're very welcome. I'm happy to be here.

Francis Vigeant: I think to get our discussion going, I have a couple shots of MIT, the MIT Dome and Simmons Hall that looks a bit like a cross between a snip of code, and almost a piece of a robot or something. It's art and science, but, can you tell us a bit about how your time at MIT connects to your role now? How it led you to be part of this art community?

Dr. Immerman: Oh, thank you very much. Thanks for having me, and that's a really great way to start the conversation.


A lot of my work at MIT was involved in institutional change — large-scale problem solving. As MIT evolved quite dramatically from when I first I got there, which was a… it was a, relatively speaking — you know, it's still MIT — but relatively speaking, it was a domestic engineering school, and became, really, a major international science and engineering university. In that time period, of course, I had the opportunity to interact extensively with the scientists and engineers, and really was immersed in the culture of the university, but also was immersed in the science, and the politics, and the strategy of institutional change, which always fascinated me.

In that same time period, I also was involved fairly extensively in the arts, mostly around the edges, because it's not necessarily as essential as some other things at MIT, but very much, and saw the connections quite clearly about the process of how artists conceived and execute their work, and how engineers and scientists do their work. There weren't appreciable differences, and we can talk about that at some length later, if we choose to. When the time came to leave MIT, as a product, aside from the time I spent trying to figure out what I was good at, and trying to figure out how not to lie to myself about that, and what really filled my soul, and trying to make sure I wasn't over-romanticizing that, it became evident that it wasn't so much about what I needed or wanted, but rather — for lack of a better way of saying it — who needed me as a product.

This wonderful gem of an art college in Beverly, Mass. was poised and had a board ready to, and a faculty and a staff, ready to want to take on some pretty substantial change, and so it was good fit. Just, on the technical side, it was a good fit, but the real substance of the fit was the culture, and the values, and how people treated each other, and how they cared about the students, and the personal individualized attention that students received to have a transformational educational experience. That was what really drew me. You're going to work hard no matter where you are, but if you have a place that you can apply your efforts that also aligns with your values, you've hit the jackpot.

That's how we got to Montserrat from MIT.

Francis Vigeant: That's great. So, Montserrat College of Art is a four-year residential college —

Dr. Immerman: Correct.

Francis Vigeant:  — of visual art and design, right. You have a very attractive student-teacher ratio; I think it's something like four to one. I mean, as a resident of the North Shore, myself, I have an opportunity to pass by the college often, and, I mean it as a compliment when I say, I've come to know Montserrat's reputation as a college of choice, and really as an artist's college, in a sense. I know that one of the things that's talked about often is about creating an environment for creative risk taking. How do you do that at Montserrat College of Art, when you are talking about this kind of community and values that bring you all together?

Dr. Immerman: Well, most independent art colleges have a strong culture of critique, and it is constant. It's constant feedback, but that critique, because so much of an emerging artist's — what they bring to the table — also has to do with them finding their voice, and getting themselves grounded. It's not just about the tools. You can learn the tools almost anywhere. As a matter of fact, that's one of the great fallacies that folks that think they're not artistic, you know; you've heard people say, "I can't draw a stick figure." The truth is everybody can. It's because people draw what they think they see, rather than what they see. Learning how to see is one of the base attributes of the freshman year experience at Montserrat.

That culture of critique almost, by definition, has to be executed in a way that's not personal, because you're bringing so much of who you are to the table while — as late-adolescent and traditionally aged student populations — while folks are trying to, students are trying to discover who they are and what they want to say. So, the maintenance and the fueling of that critique culture in a way that is professional and is helpful, and supportive, and provides feedback, in combination with that faculty-student ratio, allows us to be very personal and to maximize the potential of every student.

That culture is largely persevered and maintained by our faculty, and so our greatest responsibility is, when we hire a faculty member, to make sure that they are people that are willing to invest in that culture and share the same values.

That's kind of how it happens. Allowing the student to find themselves to work, and rework, and rework, just like the experimental method. To go over and over and over again. Studio practice, undergraduates involved in studio practice, spend enormous amounts of hours producing every day. Whether the muse strikes or not, you have to crank it out. That iteration, with feedback, creates an environment that makes it much safer to be able to make mistakes and to see what happens. Through that process, solve problems, visual-communication problems, and see what works, and eventually you get your feet under you to be able to use the tools in ways that are much more facile, and, consequently, can solve much more complex visual communication problems. Does that make sense?

Francis Vigeant: Makes perfect sense. When we last spoke, you told me something that changed my thinking forever. I doubt you had any sense that this sort of transformation happened for me.

Dr. Immerman: I got to be careful what I say.

Francis Vigeant: You have to be real careful. Somebody just might run with it. You said, "Art is engineered communication." That changed my thinking entirely about what art is.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Francis Vigeant: I would consider myself to be somebody who was a fan of art. I saw value in it, but I don't know I really saw value in it until you made the statement. I was wondering if you could expound a bit on what you mean by engineered communication, because you've been talking already about this idea of solving visual communication problems.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Francis Vigeant: What does that mean, engineered communication?

Dr. Immerman: Sure, sure.

You think about what folks, stereotypically, think about in terms of an engineering problem: a bridge or a building. To oversimplify it, the language and the technology is a lot of math and a lot of physics that help you do the analysis that breaks the problem down into parts, typical engineering or scientific approach, which is analytical, and therefore solve some kind of a problem that has to be solved, in the — let's call it in the physical environment, or in the bio technical environment, same kind of a thing. The process is exactly the same in art; it's just that there's a different tool kit.

Let's… before we get into the tool kit, let's just remember, let's remind ourselves that everything that you encounter in your life is designed by somebody with some sort of intent to solve some sort of a problem. I sometimes use this example when we have an open house and parents are here, and, with some trepidation, they're wondering what their son or daughter is going to do with an art degree. I say, "Tonight — this may be oversimplified, but tonight go home and open the refrigerator, and just look at how much art is in your refrigerator. The labels on the products, the designs of the packaging." Everything that you encounter. Look around your office space, those that are listening online. The chairs, the colors, the wall, the lighting, all designed by somebody who had some intent, that problem that needed to be solved.

We all drive cars. They all work exactly the same way, more or less, some have some features that some don't, but basically they all work the same. Why'd you buy the car you bought? Might have been a price point, but, on average, we've fallen in love with the design of cars and what it communicates visually. Instead of physics and math, we use line, and shape, and form, and value, space, and color, and texture, and rhythm, and balance, and emphasis, and on and on and on and on and on.

It is taking what it is, either your own idea that you want to communicate, using that tool kit to engineer a message, or, as a commercial artist, you're taking somebody else's problem that they want a solution to, and providing a set of engineered solutions that allow whatever message that they want to deliver to be executed and delivered. It's far more technical and far more intentional than I think a lot of the general public may, stereotypically, think when it comes to their idea of artists — you know, the lone artist sitting in the garret painting some sort of abstract image that... Art is everywhere. Every TV show you watch, every magazine you open, every commercial that you see, every webpage that you encounter, your cell phone with embedded video, photography, graphic design, illustration, user experience, user interface design — all of it done by an artist somewhere, someplace.

It's very much engineered; it's just a different toolkit than what we typically think about in terms of engineering.

Francis Vigeant: I love your example of different cars, because that was something I was thinking about the other day, in terms of, at any given price point for a vehicle, you have different options, but you typically have more than one option. Often times if, even among if you were to picture luxury vehicles, at a particular price point, perhaps, you could pick a BMW, or you could pick a Mercedes, or you could pick any number of particular luxury vehicles. They're all so differently designed, but really designed to communicate something to the buyer, or maybe perhaps the buyer may use it as a symbol of something that they value as well. Which —

Dr. Immerman: Clothing does that in massive kinds of ways.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Immerman: People, why'd you wear what you wore this morning? There's certainly utility, and that utility has importance, but that utility is also designed into it, but on large part, we dress in ways that are trying to deliver a message, either who we are or what we want to say.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that's interesting. I'd not thought about clothing. Thinking about that, you mentioned about the freshman experience, thinking about the transition from students coming from K-12 —

Dr. Immerman: Yes.

Francis Vigeant: — art experience, to freshman college art experience and how you have now this culture of critique, and, also, this definition of engineered communication. Do you see or sense a readiness gap in, particularly, maybe the areas of what art is, or the risk taking when it comes to the pool of potential applicants?

Dr. Immerman: It would be hard to generalize, because, in the first instance — and again, this is, again, on average — but in the first instance, students that intend to go to independent colleges of art and design that are studio based, are a self-selecting population. Sure, there's always gaps to be filled, because everybody comes with different preparation, different skills, and a lot of times students are not hugely educated about the options of alternatives — the multitude of options and alternatives — that are available to them post-graduation. There certainly is a preparation issue, but we screen for that preparation issue in the application process, which is not wholly different, but enough different than the normal application process to be able to hedge your bets on readiness.

Let me just talk about —

Francis Vigeant: Sure.

Dr. Immerman: — how we do it here. Almost all colleges of art and design require a portfolio. In a portfolio submission, which is fairly extensive, there's an opportunity to interact with the individual. Believe it or not, we know all our students before they're admitted. We've sometimes had several conversations with them, maybe more than one portfolio review. We've seen them in high schools, high school classroom, and, like I said, they tend, on average, to self-select.

What we're looking for is we're looking for, first of all, do they have the passion and the will to commit the amount of work that it requires to get through art college? I couldn't have done it as an undergraduate. These students are six hours of studio a day plus, then, a liberal arts class, and then they've got homework, and most all of our students also have part-time jobs. Part of the portfolio review is, do they have — have they had enough training and ability and will they be able to sustain the effort that is going to be required to produce the level of work that studio based EFAs require?

The second is, obviously, academics. Because of our earlier conversation, it's intuitive to us, but not to everyone, that art is mostly about ideas. Do they have the capacity to be able to manipulate ideas, and to research ideas, and to be able to write about ideas? If you cannot write, you really cannot succeed anywhere. If you can't tell your own story, you can't tell somebody else's. Are there basic attributes and basic capacity to engage the level of writing and the level of intellectual discovery that you have to do in concert with your studio practice?

The final, to cap it all off, is how do those things come together in attitude? Are they willing to fiercely commit themselves to this practice? Which, there are a certain number that get here and decide this isn't for them, because it is so much work.

Sure, there are gaps, but that's kind of the stock and trade of what's going on in K through 12 these days, but, because of the application process, on average, we're able to screen for those gaps in ways that relatively mitigate deficiencies. Every person comes with different skill sets, and so everybody — because the foundation here is, at all independent colleges of art and design is fairly similar — there's the opportunity to have folks catch up. In that context, because it's individually delivered, we are able to, again, individually design education path for each student consistent with their own strengths and weaknesses.

This, to me, is the way education should be done. It's highly inefficient. A lot of pressure, financially, to standardize, but as long as I'm here and as long as I think, Montserrat and other art colleges believe what they believe, there will be a great emphasis on that individual approach to education.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). It's interesting —

Dr. Immerman: Long answer to a short question, sorry.

Francis Vigeant: No, it's… that was a good answer, though. The, that culture of critique, especially in ways that aren't personal, but something that is more one-on-one, you can see how, that's not something that lends itself to automation.

Dr. Immerman: Right. Right.

Francis Vigeant: For lack of a better term. It's interesting, too: You mentioned the importance of writing and ideation, if you want to call it that, and the ability to tell a story, and intellectual curiosity, and the ability to sustain research in that discovery process. I think about English Language Arts, which we always refer to as K-12 educators, but that 'arts' piece that's on the back of it, I think, sometimes gets a little lost, especially as we — I think myself, an elementary-educator context — where we're trying teach students the basics of reading and writing.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Francis Vigeant: There's so many canned reading and writing programs that we don't necessarily think about something written as reflecting the author's life and experience and views, and then, perhaps, I wonder if that is something that follows in that experience a little bit further for students as well, such that it's possible to have something that we call English Language Arts, but, perhaps, forget that that — back to your point of engineered communication — that that's something that's written to make a statement, hopefully.

Dr. Immerman: Sure.

Francis Vigeant: Yeah.

Dr. Immerman: Those of us that are addicted to reading, it's all… recreationally, it's either about the story, or it's about the form. It is a very technical vocation to be able to write, and to write effectively, and, more importantly, to be able to write in a way that communicates.

You think about advertising, and you've got a 30-second spot, and somebody had to write it. You know it when it works, and you know it when it doesn't. That's storytelling. The narrative is so central to all art and all design, that you have to think about it first in terms of the words, especially if you're going to be in commercial decision or commercial arts, you're going to negotiate your deals by words. You're going to get your instructions by words. You're going to get feedback by words. It's central; it's critical to the process. Like I said, the narrative, we are born storytellers, but if we remember that something like, if I remembered it correctly, something like 60% of your brain is dedicated to tasks associated with vision. Some may be processing, may be hand eye coordination, that kind of thing, some 30% just in processing visual information. It's enormous part of who we are and what it means to be human.

The extent to which, then, we have to — because language is also wired, hard-wired — we have to try to make meaning. It is impossible for us not to try to make meaning. We are meaning-making animals, so it is constantly that interaction of the visual and the meaning making. The meaning making is all defined by words. If you don't have a word for something, you don't know what it is. It's just wired, hard-wired in. That's why we have whatchamacallit's and whosiwhatsit's and whatshername's. You have to have a word for it to be able to understand it. Those two things are tied together inextricably.

Francis Vigeant: I think, too, oftentimes — from an educational standpoint in the K-12 classroom — we're often under pressure from testing or scheduling or IEPs, there's so many different elements to juggle multiple disciplines and everything.

Dr. Immerman: Yeah.

Francis Vigeant: That can almost become a focus on what we're doing. We need to read 10 pages a day, or these 15 vocabulary words, or something like this.

Dr. Immerman: Yeah.

Francis Vigeant: Maybe in an art context, the what is oil on canvas, or a particular stone sculpture, or medium, I guess, is what I'm saying, but that idea is, it sounds like, is the why. Then, it's — thinking about this in the context of what you were saying with communication on the job and everything else — it's not just what you say; it's how you say it. That how is that bridge between the idea and the actual, I guess, expression of it in the end, is that correct?

Dr. Immerman: Yeah. Well, you just oversimplified — you just described the last thousand years’ debate on what makes art good. From Aristotle to the present. At least, what I've read, it starts with the actual physical object and how well it's executed and what we commonly agree to as standards in the quality of that execution, and then the second part is, what does it say? How does it communicate? Of course, nowadays, you have to add on who says it's good.

Francis Vigeant: One of the pieces I wanted to ask you about is something that is, Pablo Picasso's “Guernica.”

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Francis Vigeant: That not, maybe, the fine-tuned what's behind it, but really, I wanted to ask, since everybody has heard, by and large, of Pablo Picasso, and has seen “Guernica” in some form, some place, how would a piece like that fit into this definition of art as engineered communication?

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Well, I think we all know it was intentional, his creation of that painting was intentional to describe the horrors of war. It has a vocabulary that is what we today recognize as Pablo Picasso. I'm reminded of… For those that haven't seen his early work, that he was trained as a very traditional artist. Most people think of his cubism and the very abstract stuff that was popularized, but for those that haven't experienced his early work, they really ought to take the opportunity to look at the depth and breadth of his talent and the numbers of experiments that he went through from a very early age to his, to what we think about him today.

It's all based in the same strong, traditional training to get to the level of expression that that painting exhibits. The colors that he chose, the images, the violence, the edges, the symbolism of the Nazis, and so forth, in the painting, all toward the end of him trying to deliver a message, and, in some ways, probably dealing with his own horror, his own internal angst about the art, so it very much, as a focused piece of expression, is engineered communication. Very intentional. At the same time, very powerful, in terms of the emotional content. Yeah, it's a classic example, and, of course, there are thousands and thousands of equally classical examples.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Immerman: Some of which are because we've lost the language of some of the older paintings. We don't know what the symbolism means, that were quite contemporary at the time, in terms of their symbolic content, right up to ones where we are much more familiar with what the symbolic content is and how do you make sense out of it. Of course, the more you learn about it, the more the paintings, or the artworks, have meaning and have a richness of meaning and depth of meaning as you become more... It's just like a person knowing about music. The more you know about it, you hear differently. The same thing with art: The more you look, you see differently.

Reminds me of a story. I tell this to first-year students. I was, I don't know, in Basel or someplace, it doesn't really matter to the story, and my wife and I were walking through a museum that was filled with late works of Picasso, and I'd kind of had my fill. I don't mean to be jaded or sound jaded, but I've kind of had my fill; I'd seen enough. I turned a corner, and there was one of his early works, one of the absinthe drinkers that he had done; this one was the one in green. It was so strong and so emotional and so powerful, it literally nearly dropped me.

The point of the story that I tell is that it's important to keep looking. It's important to keep open, and keep experiencing, and keep learning, so that the quality of the experience continues to evolve and enrich over time, and to not just assume that you know, but to keep looking and to keep trying to find meaning.

Francis Vigeant: I find, really interesting, that when I had an opportunity to see this work in person — and at the time, really knew very little about it — and then to learn, more and more, that, while — for those who may not be familiar with some of the back story, that Pablo Picasso was living in exile. He was commissioned, and, feel free to correct me here if there's any fine tuning needed on this, but he was commissioned to create a work of art for the International Art Exhibition, I believe, in 1937, thereabouts, and he abandoned his early drawings and decided to make a statement about the bombing, the German bombs and Italians on the town of Guernica, and, basically was able to insert this statement into that exhibition. I don't know if this is true or not, but I did read somewhere that when the fascists found out about it, they asked him, "What did you do?" He said, "I didn't do it; you did." If that's indeed true, I think, to me, that really sums up the potential power of art as part of a public conversation, really, even though it's something that's an object.

Dr. Immerman: Well, it pervades, it's pervasive in all that we do. All our culture is really dominated — think about what Star Wars has done, or the characters in Star Wars that have become, or lines out of movies that are common to our culture, now. One of the great things about America is the melting pot of ideas and art that have morphed and combined in ways — jazz is a great example — that have enriched our lives. We ought not forget about the quality-of-life issues that are associated with art and design. It just makes our human experience better and, consequently, your points about K through 12 and the investments that are or are not being made in helping students learn that expression in a different way, really diminishes the capacity of future generations to invest in quality art and design. It just makes our lives better, and we should be paying more attention to it; we should be investing more.

I know it's an editorial, but obviously I strongly believe it.

Francis Vigeant: I want to come back to that idea in a moment. What you mentioned about culture is something which you may be familiar with, the popular book by Lynn Nichols in the documentary The Rape of Europa, which outlines a number of stories behind connecting World War II and art, and looking at a lot of the ideas or situation that The Monuments Men, the movie, portrays, but really, at a much deeper level, and we can talk an awful long time just about this.

What struck me most in this documentary was how Hitler saw himself as an artist and used art, and actually homogenized art and homogenized communication to his definition through propaganda, burning books, destroying paintings, even architectural choices and so on, and really homogenizing society.

Even in today's news, you can open the newspaper and you can find examples. ISIS destroying museums and millennial ruins and so on, so, when we think about that art as engineered communication, but also as a way of anchoring society, and helping define our culture, and give meaning and so on. This is a kind of a dark… I guess there's the positive and the negative side, and this is one of the incredibly dark periods. I guess, does this in some way, does the power of art really have something to do with its fundamental need in K-12 education and — when we're talking about the skills, you were talking about there's the tools, but then there's also a process. You're going from an idea to an actual work that communicates something specifically. There's the person who's creating that, but then there's also the person consuming it.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, it's a conversation. That part is, you're absolutely right. Yeah, I get troubled and I don't often speak about it, and I appreciate the opportunity to say something about it, about teaching to the test and not having much more project-based problem solving, whether it's art or whether it's science. When we codify, we run the risk of losing innovation. That's why you see so many technical companies now hiring artists, because the opportunity to include problem solvers that potentially think differently. Innovation and creativity go hand in hand. There's no question about it. One of the things that has been one of the great strengths of America if you, again, oversimplified and compared it to what, maybe what some stereotypically think about Japan.

Japan's — stereotypically, again, perhaps unfair — but has been great at taking other people's creativity and improving it. Whereas in the United States, we have an innovation economy that has been driving economic growth and development all around creativity and problem solving. When you remove the creativity and the process of training your brain to think in creative ways, you run the risk of homogenizing society to the point of losing our competitive advantage. I don't think that's an overstatement. I don't think it's hyperbole. That's why you have to be able to preserve the arts.

That's why you've seen progress this last year in the national curriculum tool to get it back in. When people are thinking of it as a luxury, or thinking of it as an expense that can be jettisoned in K through 12 curricula, it really is central. It really is central as a form of communication, but more importantly as a way of thinking, because it is very much the central core of how we develop our culture. Not only has to be preserved, but, losing the opportunity for students to gain the skill set of being able to interpret that culture, and to be good consumers of that culture, and to be good evaluators and critical thinkers around that culture. When you're defining what is to be taught or what is to be thought, you lose. It may be a reach, but, an educated individual, as Jefferson said, is the best guarantor, educated citizenry is the best guarantor of democracy. When we have potential of presidential candidates that are, by some people's standards, the closest thing we've seen to in a long time to fascism, you need to be concerned about it.

Again, I don't want to be hyperbolic or overstate it, but as members of society, we have a responsibility to leave the next generation better off than what we found it, and I think we run the risk of losing that capacity by homogenizing and standardizing.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Immerman: We have absolute standards at Montserrat; it's not a free-for-all. Every class has learning outcomes. Every class has specific objectives that a student has to be able to demonstrate. There's pedagogy that is ground through by our faculty review committees, intensely reviewed. There's outcomes that every student has to achieve before they can move on to the next. It's not a free for all, there are standards, but within those standards, the ability to freely create and to express yourself is not abridged.

Francis Vigeant: I think your point about the innovation and creativity in having a healthy art appreciation as well as community of artists is so vital. Those skills, I think about it as really, divergent thinking. STEM innovations are divergent. Something like Facebook, something like Uber, something like particular immunotherapies for cancer, artificial hearts, and so on. Somebody at some point thought differently about an issue, and it was divergent, and it was disruptive and probably unpopular to the folks who were solving that problem less adequately, perhaps. I think about that in the concept of the arts, too, because, I think — as your point about innovation and creativity — there's folks who, they're putting messages out there at times, that are not… They're divergent, so they're carving out a niche. They're creating a space. Sometimes they are — they're frankly — unpopular, if it offends perhaps the wrong person, if that's the case.

I think, in the case right now, for K-12 educators, most states, in a STEM context, are dealing with the transition to Next Generation Science Standards.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Francis Vigeant: One of the issues that schools are facing over, and trying to overcome, is the traditional model of science instruction, and the perceived images that we have as a society of what science, technology, engineering and math are, and having to pivot that mental model and a couple of the images I brought up here, it's interesting, that one of the ways I like to think about the way that society views something is really through stock imagery.

If you look at stock images and you say "Science, science class", what you see is students with lab coats and beakers and something that's smoking and, oftentimes, it's like, if it's not that, it mustn't be science. Same thing in the media. On the right, lower corner, there's students who are all gathered around a beaker and pouring some different colored fluids, so this must be science. I think with these new standards and the idea that there are science and engineering practices, those skills that are specific to the discipline, and I think specific is a relative term, but it's moving folks away from this idea that the teacher is a sage who delivers content to students who have the role of absorbing and then recalling, or mirroring back, what was told to them.

I really respect the National Research Council and the partner states that were involved in developing these new standards, because I feel like that isn't science. That's not preparing students to be scientists. What I hear you describing in the context of art is that art is not about just a tool, draw a straight line, or getting your color palette balanced or something perfectly, but it's so much more than that. It's actually thinking creatively and the way. In a science context, I think about this is then the Next Generation Science Standards frames it this way; it's students developing skills and using those skills to develop and use the content and actually develop and use the discipline. The role of that instructor — and I think that's, perhaps, some of what you're saying, too — around this culture of critique. I don't get the sense in a culture of critique that everybody, you have an instructor that gets up and perhaps draws something and everybody draws the same exact thing.

Dr. Immerman: Correct.

Francis Vigeant: That it's something different. In science, we often talk about teachers as the coach and as helping students understand how to engage appropriately and helping to redirect and monitor. How similar/dissimilar is that from what is going on in a quality arts-instructional setting?

Dr. Immerman: Yeah, yeah, so, very much described the next generation.

The faculty member as mentor, coach, advisor, guide, certainly instructor — because there are technical aspects of when you're teaching perspective, there are concepts that basically have to be practiced, but it's very much a flipped classroom setting where students are in studio six hours a day, and they're producing and the faculty member's walking around and advising individuals, each individuals, about the choices they're making. What were they thinking about that choice? What was the effect of that choice? Are there different ways to think about it?

It's very much what you described about taking a tool kit, learning a tool kit and then you're learning to apply it. If you want to feel good about the future of America, last night I was at our pitch contest, with eight teams of undergraduates that had business ideas derived explicitly from their perspective as artists. Each one of them had some art component, but they were straight ahead clearly business ideas that they were pitching to a panel for feedback. It was all about thinking differently. Certainly, there's analysis, like traditional science and engineering, but there's also synthesis, and looking at the larger objective, and the customer experience, and the market demand, and innovation in improving the delivery of a service or a product around, in your words, in ways that might be disruptive. To do something new and different that is going to improve the customer experience, or improve the quality of what's being delivered.

Art education is very much what you described. It's about learning a set of tools and then using those tools in a coached kind of a way with the faculty to solve interesting visual problems. In the case of the pitch contest last night, interesting business problems. Every one of which was — no overstatement — was a great idea. Power of ideas.

Francis Vigeant: It's interesting, because what you described reminds me a lot of Steve Jobs. I think Steve Jobs was much more of an artist than he was —

Dr. Immerman: Oh, totally! Are you kidding?

Francis Vigeant: — a technologist.

Dr. Immerman: It wasn't the cheapest product. It was a better-designed product.

Francis Vigeant: Right.

Dr. Immerman: Totally.

Francis Vigeant: Yup, and he was enamored with typeset and so many things.

Dr. Immerman: Yes. No question about it.

Francis Vigeant: With that idea that, you know — again, if we're already coming to it here, this crossroads. My images of the stock photo of what science is and then the science classroom, I did the same exercise and sure enough, top left, this is the, I would say the average image that you find in relation to art class in an elementary context. In the bottom right would be familiar to many folks, I think, certainly in my experience is familiar to me.

Dr. Immerman: Color wheel, yeah.

Francis Vigeant: Exactly. The color wheel. How is it that we take what we've said, what I've described in this idea of the next generation model of science instruction, and what you're describing as the next generation, or, perhaps, the present generation of art instruction, and apply that to a K-12 art classroom. Is what you're describing, this culture of critique, and the idea of students developing a tool kit, and the coaching, is that something that's applicable to a K-12 art classroom? Let's even shift it downwards — let's say, forget about high school — elementary. As early as elementary, is that something that's applicable? What are your thoughts about that?

Dr. Immerman: Well, I don't think you can start early enough in getting students to think about ideas, and to express those ideas, and then to try to implement those ideas, regardless of whether it's the wood shop or it's the math class. But you can't divorce yourself from the tool kit, as well. There has to be a balance, but you can imagine how it just sucks the energy and the life out of a classroom to have it be not relevant to the experience and the understanding of the students.

My solution: If I won the lottery, I would have a curriculum that was 100% project-based. I would do the instruction on, you can get through the entire curriculum, have students design something new. For little kids, it might be a toy. Toy design is a great career for a lot of our students. For other students, it might be something they use every day. Design a new backpack. You can get math, and engineering, and physics, and material science, and certainly the process of collaborative problem solving, and teamwork, and writing, and research, all those things can be incorporated into a project-based curriculum.

I think the worst thing in the world is to have us grind through, at least what I experienced — 100 years ago in K through 12 — of sitting there and memorizing and repeating back without thinking about the context and applicability of what it was I was doing, and how it might be used to make the world a better place. I don't think you can start early enough getting people facile with how to use their ideas and how to take those ideas and put them into a form that then can be manipulated and acted upon.

Francis Vigeant: I think even...Well, it's interesting that there's ideas and then there's even really that intentional communication, which maybe, I don't know if that's a subset of ideas, but to be able to actually express an idea though what you created.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative). [inaudible 00:54:12] verbally. We expect all our students to be able to do both.

Francis Vigeant: In a K12 context, and, as the idea of STEAM has gained traction nationally, I've often been asked, "What do you think about STEAM?" as we get into conversation. I'll often ask the person how they define art. The response that I often get is, more or less, if I was to boil it down, making something aesthetically pleasing.

Dr. Immerman: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Francis Vigeant: Again, it might take the form of, how can we take this car and make it aesthetically pleasing? We're going to build a little toy car, so STEAM means making the toy car aesthetically pleasing. Do you think that having a definition that's focused on aesthetically pleasing somebody is potentially, could potentially threaten the arts in some way?

Dr. Immerman: Well, I think that would be going too far. I think it's one aspect that's a choice. There's certainly nothing wrong with things being aesthetically pleasing, even though beauty is subjective. We come to common understandings of what we think as a culture, collectively, all the time. Whether it tastes good, whether it's beautiful, whether it's ethical — those things tend to be relative over time. Some truths are eternal, but not too many. There's nothing wrong with something being aesthetically pleasing, but it's certainly limiting. That's one aspect of, or one particular objective, or one problem to be solved depending on your tastes, but to have that be the sole purpose certainly would be a dangerous thing. There's so much more involved in whether it communicates and what it communicates. There's plenty of art that I know is good, even though I don't like it — doesn't mean it's not good art. It just doesn't happen to be my taste.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Sure.

Dr. Immerman: I wouldn't… I would not necessarily call that out as a primary objective, no. I'd be much more interested in process, and in thinking, and in choices, and decisions-making, and in building the tools to be able to exercise that message and the story that wanted to be told. Certainly, there's an aspect of things being aesthetically pleasing, and there's a place for that. Certainly, in my house there's tons of things that are extremely aesthetically pleasing, and that art form is important to me and I value it, but it's just one aspect.

Francis Vigeant: As we're rounding the corner to wrap up here, I want to let anybody know who's on the live session, if you have any questions — a few folks have asked questions already — please drop those in. You have a little spot where you can ask questions, probably, on the right side of your screen, and I'll try to field two or three of those.

Just as we're wrapping up, I guess, not to go into detail, but these, what I pulled up right now, are the science and engineering practices from the Next Generation Science Standards. I just was wondering how you see some of these STEM practices as STEAM practices that perhaps a K-12 classroom — an art classroom — could incorporate, perhaps, in some of the same ways that you are at Montserrat.

Dr. Immerman: Well, the analogies are almost one-to-one. Especially in commercial design, but asking questions and defining problems, every commercial design is that. I need to market my new fill-in-the-blank. How do I do that in a meaningful way that defines the market segment that I'm trying to attract? All art and design has, in terms of our ways that we understand visual language, all has models that help us understand organize how we think and how we use those models.

Oversimplified, it could be physical models, or it could be visual models. Sculpture has, certainly, characteristics to it that are defined by models of design, and plenty of commercial design. Experimentation, thinking about what you're trying to achieve, and then trying it and fixing what doesn't work is the process of creating good art. Planning and carrying out investigations or experimentations, and then taking it apart. What part works; what doesn't? What I told you about critique in terms of analysis, this works over here. Why does it work? This doesn't work. Why doesn't it work? How do you interpret the data that you're seeing and why isn't that working the way you think it ought to?

I would use… I would say design thinking rather than mathematical thinking, but there's a ton of math in art. Just a ton in relationships and certainly in figure drawing — it's all math, in terms of the spatial relationships between parts of the body, and students have to learn that math. Engaging in argument from evidence. Well, you know, that's the critique process.

From a commercial design standpoint, it's market research. How does this relate? How do people experience it? What's the data that says that this is working or it isn't? Obtaining, evaluating, communicating information, we've gone through that, we've covered that. It's almost one-to-one; it's just a different language and a different set of skills.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I like that idea, too. Right, and the tools just being, or the expression just being a different almost medium, I guess, we might call it.

Dr. Immerman: Yup.

Francis Vigeant: That's really helpful and wonderful. I appreciate your insight, and I wish we had even more time to discuss these things, because, as we're talking the creating, evaluating, analyzing from that traditional Bloom Taxonomy, one of the things that we often talk about in the context of STEM, is the idea that creating, evaluating, analyzing almost happens simultaneously.

Dr. Immerman: Yeah, and I would put synthesis and evaluation as well. I'd add that in there because I think they're missing that. What's the whole? How do things come together? How do you put whole things together to create something new? Maybe it's in the creation block, but analysis and synthesis usually go hand in hand.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely, and you have the idea, how do you create against it and then in that critiquing process, evaluate, analyze, and adjust, yeah.

We've had a few questions and I want to make sure to grab one or two of these. I want to also give a shout-out to the college, too, in the sense of you guys, I believe, have some community programs, don't you, as well? Or at least, community nights.

Dr. Immerman: Yes; well, our biggest one — which is a plug, straight-ahead plug — is —

Francis Vigeant: Straight-ahead.

Dr. Immerman: — our annual auction, which is open call, so it's students, faculty, and community members; our annual auction is April the 2nd. It's going to be in a warehouse at Gloster Engineering at Blackburn Circle, and this is an experience not to be missed. In a gigantic space with art being made in the moment. We typically limit tickets to 1,000 participants. I would encourage people, if they really want to see some remarkable art and be able to bid on it at auction prices and to experience art that's contemporary and in the moment, absolutely go to our website and click on the auction.

Francis Vigeant: That's wonderful. So can people bid online, as well, or do they have to be in person?

Dr. Immerman: They can't. They have to be there.

Francis Vigeant: Okay, well, actually, that's my wife's birthday, so maybe that's a good event for us to check out.

We have some great questions, here. A lot of positive reflections on things that were shared, comments you made. There's a few here that I think will be, perhaps, crossing a lot of different questions that have been asked.

One is from an, I believe, an educator, who is teaching in a lower-economic area where folks can't afford art classes and supplies on their own. Do you have any advice on how this educator, or educators, in this situation can build a love for art or even STEAM? She has some access to, it sounds like, perhaps, a maker space, which, I guess many folks probably wouldn't have, but just if you picture that setting, what would be your recommendation?

Dr. Immerman: Well, there's a lot of... My recommendation must be to look at design thinking and to look at the process of thinking about art. Materials don't have to be expensive. They can be every day materials. They can be materials that are brought from home. Egg cartons are remarkably useful in creating works of art, but the process of using those materials and thinking about what is it you're trying to achieve, what's the idea? Then, experimenting with how those materials come together to create a form, and then, thinking about the form, and what does it mean and did it work or not?

Having said that, there are lots of places that engage art in lower socioeconomic environments where there's — where students can have access to it, but I wouldn't be so constrained about materials. I'd think about found, everyday items that might be in everyone's home. Paper towel, the cardboard piece in paper towel, or simple ink that's not hugely expensive. We've got lots of ideas, if that person wants to be in touch, I can connect them with some folks that are thinking about curricula and how to use simpler and less expensive, because certainly the cost is certainly an issue everywhere in the United States.

Francis Vigeant: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Absolutely.

Dr. Immerman: Not just in socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods.

Francis Vigeant: Absolutely. If that person — if you'd like to reach out, either, perhaps through, is there, can go through a contact form, or, if they want to reach out-?

Dr. Immerman: No, just write me. Just write me. It's okay.

Francis Vigeant: Okay, wonderful, so we'll connect that person up, then.

The next question I wanted to send your way, here, is from another educator who, or perhaps a parent, who said that they feel as though they traded their artistic ability when they used to be able to sketch wonderfully, for a science-and-math ability, kind of a math brain, and they feel like they've lost some of that ability. How can they encourage their students — so it must be an educator, here — their students as well as their own children to maintain both?

Dr. Immerman: Yeah. I would just… I don't want to oversimplify, because everybody has a certain upper limit of emotional/intellectual energy, but it's just practice. It really is practice.

Francis Vigeant: Are there any particular venues that you would recommend of some type for that?

Dr. Immerman: There are tons of community opportunities to take classes. There's online courses and online opportunities to experiment and to try hard. Sometimes it just is going to museums more regularly and experiencing, being immersed, in getting that part of your brain reconnected. It's almost limitless, but it is the practice, and the practice is important. It's just like I can hardly play the piano anymore, because I'm out of practice. It's in there, and if I worked at it enough it would come back, but it is; practice is critical.

Francis Vigeant: That absolutely makes perfect sense. I know one, if this person is in the California region, especially Bay Area,; the Children's Creativity Museum in the Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco has some resources online, but also some great resources that you can go visit as well.

There are so many questions, I'll take maybe one more. Let's see here… There's several that's sort of together saying resources — two parts here, one being, “Can you speak to the role of visual arts and physically creating, in terms of developing the spatial skills required for engineering skills?” I know there's been some research about that. Was there anything that you would recommend?

Dr. Immerman: Well, I can speak generally. I'm certainly not an expert, but it makes sense.

Our ability to manipulate and our ability to do hand eye coordination, but it's… I would focus more on the thinking. The process, the seeing...

I was surprised to learn, but it's intuitive, I was surprised to learn that in the continuing education that physicians are required to do that art classes qualified. The logic was — there's a big program of this at Columbia — the logic was that it helps physicians be better with their bedside manner and with their observation skills. That they see better when they practice building, and looking, and drawing, so it makes sense that there's a direct relationship to intellectual development and the parts of the brain that generalize from one particular application to another.

Again, I'm not an expert on it. I'm guessing there are people who are.

Francis Vigeant: Sure. I know there is a report that was looking at Legos and, actually, some of the gender gaps in STEM career path, pathways and those who perhaps choose a STEM career versus those that don't. Early boys’ toys was actually one of the pieces that they highlighted. Looking at boys being encouraged to work with things like Legos and how it had an effect on visual spacing reasoning versus girls that were not encouraged or, perhaps, discouraged in some cases.

The last piece, I know that you have been involved with a number of efforts locally and, I think also, nationally, when it comes to the STEAM conversation. The role of arts in science, technology, and engineering. What I don't want to let you go without asking — because several folks are asking about this — how can — let's say community members, if that's different, but, educators as well — how can they connect up and help support the STEAM conversation, and what are the efforts that they could, perhaps, participate in?

Dr. Immerman: Well, there is a — at the national level — there is a congressional caucus on STEAM, so they could find out whether their representative is a member of the caucus, and they could write them to encourage them join the caucus. There's a ton of links online of STEM to STEAM. Many of my colleague institutions are also deeply involved in local efforts. They can be involved in their school committees, in encouraging the preservation and the inclusion of arts in K through 12 curricula, but, again, if they really want to get connected to it, a simple Google search will probably surface many more options than I could list. It's engaging and talking about it and watching and making sure that creativity and innovation understand, those folks that are involved in creativity and innovation, understand that the arts have an essential role in helping us maintain and expand our creativity.

Francis Vigeant: Absolutely.

Dr. Immerman: As well as economic development. We all… There's another whole hour on economic development.

Francis Vigeant: Oh, absolutely. I wish we had time for even more questions, because we have a bunch, but we will, if you haven't had your question answered, we'll do our best to follow up with you. You can reach out to us and we'll connect you with Dr. Immerman. There's a contact us link on the website, and I'm sure if you go to, you can contact Dr. Immerman, write him right through the resources there as well.

There have been a few questions about, “Will this presentation be available online after this?” Yes. There are a few ways you can stay connected. You can go to, Twitter @KnowAtom, and this event, as well as others, are available on You can check there. We'll also send folks a link to the recording of this session in a follow-up email.

Steve, I've learned an awful lot and I appreciate even more now what you do and how an art education's coming together, at least at Montserrat, under your guidance. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Immerman: It was my very great pleasure. Thank you for inviting me; I really appreciate it.

Francis Vigeant: I'd also like to thank everyone who has joined us. Thank you for your time, and, again, if you would like to share this with a friend, it will be available online free and on demand if you go to, and we will also get the folks at Montserrat a link as well that they can post on their site

Topics: STEM, STEAM, STEAM Curriculum

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