Contact Buzz: Getting to the roots of STEM in Iowa

A mother helps her son during a workshop at the Science Center of Iowa. – Courtesy of the Science Center of Iowa

“Creativity is the capital of the 21st century.”

When Robert Bluestone shared this insight during his inspirational keynote for the 2010 Arts Advocacy Day in Des Moines, he was on target.

Back then, tying arts to economy and education as an integral part of a comprehensive learning process was still in a formative stage.

One path in providing a holistic approach to education, which should always include the arts, is adopting its inclusion in the areas where America has increasingly lagged. In short, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) must complete its evolution to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math).

The roots of STEM can be traced to the Morrill Act of 1862 which granted states land to establish colleges that could promote agricultural science. After the act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in July of 1862, Iowa became the first state legislature to accept the provisions of the act, leading directly to the creation of Iowa State University.

Officially opened in 1869 as the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm, the institution became known as the Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanic Arts in 1898, then Iowa State University of Science and Technology in 1959 ( which shortens to its popular name, Iowa State University).

In the early 2000s, the National Science Foundation (NSF) wanted an educational term for four educational subject disciplines; Science, Math, Engineering and Technology. A national consensus emerged that U.S. students’ achievements in these key subjects were lagging behind students in other industrialized countries. The NSF coined their focus SMET.

Thankfully, Judith Ramaley — NSF director of education and human resources — moved some words around to reach the now familiar acronym (and, arguably, better sounding), STEM.

Later, a set of NSF sponsored workshops in 2010 and 2011 led to the creation of the SEAD (Sciences, Engineering, Arts and Design) Network. This network is “a community of advocates for the importance and value of research and creative work across the arts and sciences.” The Washington D.C. workshop took initial steps to bring the arts and humanities together with the sciences and technology. These efforts would stimulate interdisciplinary research to “engage diverse approaches, elicit challenging ideas, and evolve new paradigms.”

Arts and Science intersect at Science Center of Iowa’s Innovation Lab workshop. – Courtesy of Science Center of Iowa

SEAD, in turn, led to the Innovation Collaborative in 2013. The Innovation Collaborative is the national forum “to foster creativity, innovation and lifelong learning. It identifies and disseminates information about the many ways that effective integration of the arts, sciences, humanities, engineering, and the use of technology reinforces teaching and incorporates lifelong learning in both in-school (formal) and out-of-school (informal) settings.”

With that, the arts became a recognized and integral part of the educational process.

One of the best STEAM playgrounds in Iowa is the Science Center of Iowa (SCI).

“SCI’s Innovation Lab programming includes everything from 3D printing to programming a robot to paint,” said Curt Simmons, SCI’s president and CEO. “Arts and sciences intersect nicely in our Innovation Lab. The lines are really blurred.”

From nationally acclaimed touring exhibits, like the recent months-long exhibition of “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs,” to a daily schedule of activities, everything lives up to the claim from Amy Hock (the SCI director of marketing and public relations) that SCI is where “creativity and intelligence are having fun.”

“Art plays a factor in the development of our exhibits, where SCI staff use the design process from planning to fabrication to installation,” added Simmons.

This article was originally published in Little Village’s May 2023 issues.