Are we sacrificing creativity for content?

I decided to become an engineer, before even knowing what “engineering” was, because of a comment my 4th grade art teacher made regarding an art project. I’m pretty sure she meant it as a complement.

The concept of “<insert form of creative expression here> is <insert sensory-related word here> math” is nothing new. From the mathematics of music, to the use of perspective in visual art, there is no escaping the mathematical nature of the universe. All art, no matter the medium, can be thought of as offering a different view of our underlying reality. A different way of looking at the equations, a way at looking at math without even realizing it’s math.

Then why in the engineering curriculum is the emphasis all on the math? Sure, it’s important. Knowing the math can mean the difference between a bridge that collapses1 and one that is a functional art exhibit. Or the difference between a Mars Climate Orbiter that doesn’t orbit and a Mars rover that far exceeds its planned longevity. But it’s still just one view.

If you have ever tried applying the same layering techniques using water colors that are commonly done with oil paints, or tried to write a formal cover letter in iambic tetrameter, you have first hand experience that the choice of the medium has a large impact on the styles and expressive techniques available to the artist. Likewise, the choice of programming language has a similar affect on the capabilities and limitations of the programmer.

see the code

And on the flip side, anyone who can write a formal cover letter, or who is intrigued by writing one in iambic tetrameter, should learn a programming language or two. It’s yet another form of artistic expression, one that can transform the metamedia of the computer into a rich, expressive statement, or produce an epic failure of both form and function.

Footnotes:

1 Though there is a beauty to the mathematics of this particular failure.

Structure, Language and Art

In a recent post tylera5 commented that the last time he wrote poetry was in high school, and wasn’t expecting to have to write a poem for a programming course. I got the idea for a poetry assignment from a friend of mine who teaches a biological science course. She found that the challenge of condensing a technical topic into a 17 syllable Haiku really forces one to think critically about the subject and filter through all the information to shake out the key concept. And poems about tech topics are just fun to read!

I think the benefit is even increased for a programming course. As tylera5 mentioned, both poems had a structure, and he had to think a bit about how to put his thoughts into the structure dictated by the poetry form, whether it be the 5/7/5 syllable structure of a Haiku, or the AABBA rhyming scheme of a limerick.

Poetry is the expression of ideas and thoughts through structured language (and the structure can play a larger or lesser roll depending on the poet, and type of poetry). Programming also is the expression of ideas and thoughts through structured language. The domain of ideas is often more restricted (though not necessarily, this article and book could be the subject of a full post in its own right) and adherence to structure is more strict, but there is an art to both forms of expression.

Are there artistic and expressive tools in other STEM topics as well?