Reimagining the Future of Higher Education: From STEM to SEAD

Design and art have long been viewed as distinct fields of inquiry from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), but the contemporary perspective is that these modernist institutional distinctions are rapidly eroding now more than ever. For more than a decade, new residencies, institutions, collaborations, and projects have pushed the expectations and outcomes of working across both the sciences and the arts. Today, it’s almost a given that science, design, engineering, and art are closely linked in product as well as practice. The benefits of these collaborations, while messy and uncertain, have taught us the value of craft in storytelling through data, new ways of working across disciplines, participatory experimentation, public witnessing of science, contestational demonstrations of technology, and the insightful taxonomies that can emerge from untethered interpretations of the world and our tools. 

The Network for Science, Engineering, Art and Design (SEAD) is one of the few National Science Foundation-supported efforts to synthesize what we now know about the role of art and design into the practices of science and engineering as a formal institutional agenda. Its vision is to become the leading advocate for collaboration among the sciences, engineering, arts and design, fostering innovation and learning that impact community sustainability and economic growth. 

It aims to accomplish this goal by: 

  1. Facilitating experimentation with new methods, materials, and modes of creative inquiry. 
  2. Promoting life-long learning by supporting topics, pedagogies, and evaluation methods that integrate the sciences, engineering, arts and design. 
  3. Fostering strategic partnerships among individuals and organizations including government, industry, civic and academic institutions.
  4. Valuing sustainability, community development and social entrepreneurship, in order to spur economic growth.


The network is founded on the observations that innovation is happening at the intersection of the sciences, engineering, arts and design and that those intersections are some of the most transformative forces driving our economy, culture, and learning.

New products, services, methodologies, and questions are now fundamentally hybrid, bringing together new actors and stakeholders in ways that were unimagined a decade ago. 

And as a result, the way we play, the hardware use as tools, and how we use and disseminate information has enabled new forms of expression and interpretation. And collectively, as individuals and as a  society, we are leveraging greater understandings of complex dynamics and communication forms to yield better coordination and cooperation across multiple scales.

In the last ten years, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has been the core focus for teaching, learning, education, and policy-making to define and catalyze innovation and economic development in the United States. Now, as we recognize that these core skills and competencies live and breathe within the richness of culture and society, we are calibrating our expectations and our goals to match. Artists and designers are now entering a phase where their methodologies and interventions drive discovery is ways that transcend the simple communication of science. The practices and products of science and engineering, meanwhile, are rapidly discovering that beauty, mystery, and nonsense are as much a feature of experimentation and usability as functionality and form.

There is an open call for visions that highlight these intersections, the obstacles they create, and the opportunities that emerge in the transition from STEM to SEAD. While economic development and innovation are driving goals of this endeavor, there will be a broader set of impacts on how we share and and make decisions, the paths we use to determine what we call knowledge, and on the tools we will use to shape the reimagination of higher education and learning over the course of the next decade.

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