Among the most prominent solutions offered up for our present economic malaise and the broader decline of the republic: a robust investment in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.
If America is to right the ship, the thinking goes, it must have a better grasp of calculus, computer chips, and chemistry.
No one would disagree with that, of course, but Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda suggests there is a missing piece: art. The nation, he insists, must move from STEM to STEAM.
Maeda is hardly the only proponent of the idea. But the president — a celebrated artist and technologist in his own right — is perhaps the best known. And in recent months, he has been pushing STEAM in speeches, interviews, and private meetings with all manner of power brokers.
This week, the idea will get its fullest workout at a long-planned conference at RISD titled, "Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art-Science-Design Pedagogy."
With the confab fully booked, RISD has been forced in recent weeks to turn away interested parties from as far away as Brazil. "It's sort of like a flare in the world" for the idea, said Maeda, chatting by phone this week.
But does science really need art?
Maeda certainly thinks so. Scientists, he says, are convergent thinkers, "people who can execute," who can "get the job done." Artists, he says, are divergent thinkers, "people who expand the horizons."
Indeed, technology, he suggests, is rendered most accessible and desirable through superior design. MP3 players, after all, were around for some time before Apple made them a phenomenon.
"Almost every single living person you know has an iPod or knows someone who has an iPod," he says. Yet Apple, in its expert bridging of technology and design, "is just such an anomaly."
Presenters at the conference will include Newport's Richard Saul Wurman, who created the popular TED series and was a pioneer in the push to make information more digestible, and Michael Benson, a journalist and filmmaker whose work includes exquisite explorations of deep space rendered in prose and pictures.
Shirley Malcom, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, will engage in an on-stage discussion with Margaret Honey, president and CEO of the New York Hall of Science.
The lessons science might learn from art are many, Malcom suggests. Not the least of them: effectively communicating complicated ideas to the public, a skill that has long been in short supply in the sciences.
Learning something of visual representation — of simple poster-making — could be enormously helpful. But there are other means, too. Malcom citess a "Dance Your Ph.D" contest that launched a couple of years ago. "We appreciate that it's possible to teach science through storytelling," she says.
But closer attention to art and design can also mean improvements in daily living, she suggests: drive-through ATMs, which require a side-splitting stretch, weren't made for people her size.
What is required, what she hopes will come out of the conference, is a better dialogue between artists and scientists.
"We're more alike than we are different," she says. "Sometimes I think the barriers are artificial — that our jargon stands in the way of communication."