Get the A in STEAM early on – Prof Linda Doyle

3 Jul 2015

Prof Linda Doyle, director, CONNECT, speaking at Inspirefest 2015 in Dublin. Photo by Robbie Reynolds/Conor McCabe Photography

Inspirefest 2015 keynote speaker Prof Linda Doyle spoke of the need to include artists and designers early in the process of developing technology.

In the 1950s, Charles and Ray Eames made a short film ‘primer’ about communications technology.

The architect and artist understood the underlying concepts and explained them in a way that still has merit today, according to Inspirefest 2015 keynote speaker Prof Linda Doyle.

“They made the most beautiful, amazing objects… and a lot of people know them through that,” she said. “But what I am really interested in is their creative practices, their educational ideas and films they made.”

Their insights into communication theory are a particular source of inspiration for Doyle, who is professor of engineering and the arts at Trinity College Dublin.

“They were fearless,” she said. “As artists and architects who had no background in technology, they accessed the most cutting-edge technology of the day.”

Charles and Ray Eames recast ideas, they understood that a network was connected with people long before people were using mobile phones and they included concepts from a then-recently-published paper about how noise disturbs communications and has to be taken out, according to Doyle.

“From that paper stemmed the digital world that we currently live in. [The Eames] accessed that, understood it, they processed it.”

Adding art to science, technology, engineering and maths

The approach that Charles and Ray Eames took to education also shows how important the ‘A’ is in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and maths), noted Doyle.

“A lot of what we do today and the way we teach is about producing something to the bare minimum, sterilising it, dealing with the question, ‘Will that be on the exam?’ That way of thinking,” she said. “[Charles and Ray Eames]thought, ‘We want to immerse people in lots of different ideas, we want to bring them together and we want people to make their own connections’.”

As director of the Science Foundation Ireland CONNECT centre, Doyle said she would like to see the perspectives of artists and designers included much earlier in the process of developing technologies.

“In the [telecoms engineering] world I come from, a lot of the time when you talk about artists and designers coming on board, it is lumped in under ‘let’s do some educational outreach activity so the wider public can understand’,” she said. “That is a fantastic thing to do, but that to me is not the only place that the arts and design should be side-by-side with the technology.”

‘We are in a situation where this mixing of people from different disciplines is not only nice to have but absolutely essential in the world we are facing into’

IoT needs A

Doyle is particularly keen that creative mindsets are involved in the emerging area of the internet of things, or IoT.

“The IoT world is all about taking everything in the world and instrumenting it in a way that it can report back to the internet something about its condition or its context, and then you can use that information to make some kind of informed decision,” she explained, citing smart cities, factories and food as areas of application.

“The reality is, with the IoT, that social rules are getting embedded in the environment around us, and those social rules will inform our decisions but can also determine our behaviour.”

Doyle has already seen ‘worn-out gender stereotypes’ being reinforced in emerging IoT applications and argues we need early input from creative disciplines and mindsets that understand power and culture, and understand that there is no such thing as neutral design.

“We are in a situation where this mixing of people from different disciplines is not only nice to have but absolutely essential in the world we are facing into.”

Updated at 12.22pm on 3 July 2015 to include video of Prof Linda Doyle’s Inspirefest 2015 keynote address.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.

Women Invent is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication