Building STEAM: The Buzz from the McBee Hive

September 7, 2013
Black and white photo of a steam locomotive
Photo caption

Full STEAM ahead!

(Locomotive No. 15 steaming onto turntable, view from North)

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Since its earliest grant awards, the NEH has recognized the critical role of humanities education and research in the STEM fields.  The last post from the McBee Hive showed how the humanities historically have been at the root of STEM.   In the McBee Years since then, things have gotten decidedly STEAM-y. STEAM is the interdisciplinary confluence of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Design, Math, and Humanities, I would hasten to add (assumedly, because STEHAM doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue).  While the STEM-to-STEAM movement is lately gaining momentum, these examples of early projects show that NEH always has moved full STEAM ahead.


  • Interdisciplinary Study in Bioethics, Informed Consent and Human Experimentation (FY-73-331) focused particular attention on the “problem of establishing criteria for the identification of meaningful and/or informed consent” in both “experimental and therapeutic situations.”  
  • The History of Modern Cosmology (F-73-503) supported research into the scientific achievements made at the Hale observatory as “revealed not only in published scientific papers but also in unpublished manuscripts and through interviews of observatory members.”  The study also proposed to “interpret the achievements as reflected in the life, work and philosophy of Edwin Hubble.”  
    A color photo of the Crab Nebula
    Photo caption

    Modern Cosmology

    (Crab Nebula in visible light taken by the Hale Observatory optical telescope in 1959.)

    NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC)

  • Uses of the Humanities in Scientific and Technological Decisions (AV-10502-74-112) established an “Applied Humanities” unit that enlisted “humanists, in collaboration with scientists and social scientists, in applying the distinctive approaches and methods of the humanities to problems of pressing social concern, especially those due to the pervasive influence of science and technology.”  
  • Science Fiction as A Tool for Studying Alternatives in a Changing Society (F-73-159) explored the potential of using Science Fiction as a means for studying social change and values, specifically focusing on how “the computer and the ways that cybernetics is altering our society and may alter it in the future.”
  • The Role of the 17th and 20th Century Scientific Revolutions in the Making of the Modern Mind (F-73-583) investigated how major scientific revolutions have affected the disciplines of art, music, literature, religion and philosophy. 


  • The Computer-Privacy Issue  (F-73-143) anticipated a topic that is as timely now as it was at the cusp of the Information Age.  The project investigated from a humanistic viewpoint the the tension between the "legitimate need for computerized information systems versus the lack of adequate safeguards for these systems."
  • A Re-Interpretation of High Gothic Structure (F-73-061) used only recently-available engineering analysis techniques to interpret the works of Gothic Architects.
    Drawing of the parts of a gothic church.
    Photo caption

    Gothic Architecture

    (J. & R. Lamb Studios, Design drawing for architectural elements: Gothic church details, between 1857 and 1999)

    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

  • A Study with Reflectography: The Workshop of Jan van Scorel (FY-73-272) pioneered the use of  infrared technology for technical studies in art history. 


  • The Implication of New Technologies and Recent Developments in Mathematics and the Sciences for the Theory and Practices of Contemporary Music (FY-73-353) explored a then-emerging interdisciplinary area combining music and technology.
  • Science and Art in the Renaissance, with Special Attention to Mathematics and Theories of Perspective (FY-73-257) studied the integral part mathematics had in the training of Renaissance artists.
  • Heuristics of Humanism in Mathematics Through Literature and Art (F-73-219) examined the areas of the arts in relation to mathematics, including how historical events coincided with the development of mathematics.

The studies of science and the humanities have not been, nor should they be, mutually exclusive. Humanistic values affect scientific innovation and progress. Humanities scholarship can also give us great insight into the history of scientific discovery and provide a critical lens through which to investigate technology’s effect on social values and ethics. Just as humanistic values inform our perspective on scientific and technological advancements, technology has been a major influence on, and has undeniably enhanced, humanities research.  The STEM fields provide new ways to interpret and understand objects of humanistic research.   The NEH has historically embraced projects that span disciplines in the sciences and the humanities, and continues to do so with innovative and interdisciplinary grant programs such as Digging into Data Challenge Grants, Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities, and Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants.   

Want to learn more about how the NEH continues to build STEAM?  The NEH Office of Congressional Affairs is hosting a series of Google+ Hangouts that explore the critical intersection of STEM and the humanities.  On Tuesday, September 10 at 2 pm EST, ODH Senior Program Officer Perry Collins will join Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda, members of the Congressional STEAM caucus, and NEH, NEA, and IMLS staff in a discussion of the STEM-to-STEAM movement and government resources that support the expansion of STEAM research and education.