New power stations of the imagination

Battersea Power Station 1953

Tate Modern has recently opened its new extension over the tanks where oil for the Bankside power station was stored, and now a whole new kind of energy is emerging from its new interactive and youth-friendly spaces, such as Tate Exchange.

Battersea Power Station, also designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, is undergoing a similar transformation. As well as shops, flats, restaurants, training centres, play park and more, there will also be arts and heritage venues throughout the new development. A Cultural Education Challenge project in the Nine Elms regeneration area, called Cultivate, is working with 12 local primary schools with the Battersea Power Station development company, using a range of drawing techniques to imagine the feeling of its energy in the past, and what it could be in the future.

Children taking part in Powered by Imagination workshops

The power station towers used to emit horrid black smoke but now – as there will be a state of the art eco-power station for the development – its towers will now emit STEAM!

It’s good to remember that Gilbert Scott was an architect who spent his (Battersea) childhood drawing, looking at buildings and art. He thought that even the most functional buildings should be beautiful. Art, science and engineering were all part of one activity for him. If we want to make thriving liveable places, we need people working on them who are not just technically but imaginatively skilled.

Future-facing educationalist, Stephen Heppell* has written an article for Tate’s magazine exploring this question about why art and creativity are not more valued in education. He refers to the new Tate: “Standing inside Tate Modern, with the Turbine Hall below, looking out across the bridge to St Paul’s, drinking in the vista of British ingenuity, of arts and applied engineering, of inventive science and playfulness, of collaboration and creativity, it is impossible not to see the importance of this new STEAM world of learning.”

What is STEAM? “Around the world, and here in the UK too, learning institutions are re-embracing a mix of …STEM subjects, often with the arts included (STEAM), emphasising project-based activities, actually making and creating things, all usually in technology-rich learning spaces.”

What are these learning spaces like? “Those new ‘maker spaces’ house equipment ranging from 3D printers and scanners, through laser cutters and etchers, to knitting machines and computer-driven embroidery. Materials include the detritus of dismantled ‘last year’s’ gadgets alongside the new resources of conductive play-dough or PLA filament. They are messy, unpredictable, busy, inspirational and seductive.” 

Why are these kinds of maker spaces important? “Inside them, students seem to have escaped the boxes of traditional learning to mash-up ingenious re- uses of components, to invent, create and collaborate. Anyone close to this excitement is typically bowled over by it. Formally, the 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development paper Sparking Innovation in STEM Education with Technology and Collaboration noted a host of researched outcomes including enhanced higher-order skills and improved learning, all with better student interaction, engagement and motivation. Informally, teachers speak of unstoppable learning happening at weekends, outside of traditional hours and during holidays.”

Are there enough of them, however? And how accessible are they to young people still in school? How much time do young people have to be in such places? And above all, how can such learning be encouraged when it runs against the tide of educational reform?

As Heppell writes: “all this comes at a time when education is facing a crossroads. On the one hand, nations are encouraging project-based work, with Finland in 2015 replacing all discrete school subjects with ‘topics’, while industry is crying out for 21st-century skills – CEOs last year put collaboration (50 per cent), honesty (27 per cent) and vision (25 per cent) ahead of knowledge (19 per cent) as essentials for success. On the other hand, the English Baccalaureate school performance measure comprises a tiny core of discrete subjects without that rich overlap: English, mathematics, history or geography, the sciences and a language. More are expected to be added, but the list seems to exclude pretty much anything where students work standing up, debate, create or actively collaborate: practical science, music, drama, sport, art and much more are missing.”

One thing that is missing from the EBacc, which may become compulsory soon, is Computing, which replaced ICT so that it could generate more programmers and makers fit for the 21st Century economy.

It seems that STEAM learning, the Arts in particular, are struggling because the system is so driven by numerical measurability: “The EBacc sprang from a not unreasonable wish to improve learning efficiency. However, not all desirable learning is measured with a multiple choice test score or a written examination. It is often said that while not everything that can be counted counts, not everything that counts can be counted. The creative and arts sector is rich with reliable and trusted ways to judge outcomes, from the architectural crit to practice-based PhDs in sculpture. The BAFTAs are not criterion referenced, but we trust the judgments made. Celebration, exhibition, peer evaluation, scholarship, narrative… all play a part, but if the sector doesn’t stand up tall and shout loudly for the quality of these judgments, we end up with a dismal reductionist curriculum of tested retention and rehearsed written answers. And we would run out of STEAM, in every sense.”

Ultimately, why does STEAM matter more than ever? It’s the wider context of uncertainty: “The environment in which we live is increasingly filled with the unexpected. Surprises are ever bigger, from volcanic ash clouds and economic collapse to mass migration and climate change. STEAM activity designedly presents learners with unpredictable challenges that test their application of knowledge and understanding, rather than their ability to replicate or regurgitate it.”

And the solutions are all about people and their education: “Our future will be vouchsafed by people who, facing unforeseen problems, can produce ingenious solutions, can astonish their peers, and can gratify their mentors. Curiously, the various Tates are filled by the outputs of precisely such people. Bringing their ingenuity into the maker spaces of the new STEAM age can literally transform the world in the way the last steam age did. But for that to happen, the messiness, the unpredictability, the 24/7 busyness, the inspiration of STEAM has to be valued, accredited and placed at the centre of our schools and our education system.”

He ends with a call to action from the creative learning sectors to draw on our own imagination: “And consequently the creative and arts communities will need to offer a valid alternative way to measure the creative learning outcomes of education. Surely, together we have the imagination and cohesion to do just that?”


* Professor Stephen Heppell is Felipe Segovia Chair of Learning Innovation at Universidad Camilo José Cela, Madrid, and Chair in New Media Environments, CEMP, Bournemouth University.

3 thoughts on “New power stations of the imagination

  1. “Around the world, and here in the UK too, learning institutions are re-embracing a mix of …STEM subjects, often with the arts included (STEAM), emphasising project-based activities, actually making and creating things, all usually in technology-rich learning spaces.”

    Well, sadly not here in the UK too except in a very few learning institutions. We don’t really understand STEM or STEAM and see them simply as a series of separate subjects rather than any exploration of the connections between them. And such subjects place little emphasis on project-based making and creating activities. Furthermore the declining discipline of D&T – the one subject that potentially does, even though it uses 1960s industrial practice as a model – is not generally considered as a STEM subject.

    In the US, where they appear to have a better grasp of STEAM, the problem is different – they don’t have the learning spaces readily available, and such work often takes places in the library. Here we have readily-available and well-equipped under-utilised D&T workshops, but no curriculum or teaching staff to act as a catalyst.

    In this country it seems we see the solution as more academically-led Grammar Schools than in the promoting “British ingenuity, of arts and applied engineering, of inventive science and playfulness, of collaboration and creativity’.


  2. I agree the UK isn’t embracing the idea as quickly as some other countries. Maybe more creativity in schools follows on from more making in places around them. This article about FabLabs focuses on places like Barcelona and Sao Paolo. I wonder how much impact they are having on young people and learning environments?


  3. This is an interesting conversation. Artswork is piloting a series of meaningful collaborations and explorations of cross curricular STEM / STEAM programmes that bring different partners together to explore what such a blending between subject areas could mean. This has begun to stimulate interesting programmes. In one school they chose Harry Potter as the theme allowing for some exciting experimentation across the curriculum and not only exciting children in their learning but demonstrably reinvigorating teaching practice. The science lab and art studio as a resource for all!


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