Jan 3, 2017

STEM is a well-known buzzword in education circles.  It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.  It’s gained traction as schools teach more of those subjects to prepare students for the job market. The University of North Carolina-Asheville is adding ‘A’ to STEM, making it STEAM.  The ‘A’ stands for arts…

What looks like a giant air hockey table, its top covered in a thin sheen of water, is actually a water jet cutter says Sarah Sanders.  And today it’s cutting through metal. “One of the advantages of cutting with the water is that it leaves a really clean cut.  They aren’t any burrs.  It also doesn’t produce any fumes,” she says.  Sanders is the manager of UNCA’s STEAM lab, where engineering meets art.  That may sound like an odd combination, but Sanders insists it’s a natural extension for both.  “If you were to go to the engineering shop on campus right now, and then go to the sculpture studio on campus right now, you’d see a lot of the same equipment," according to Sander.  "You’d see a table saw, a band saw, drill presses, that sort of stuff.”

All of those are present in the STEAM lab, as well as banks of computers where designs are entered for the machines to follow as they cut.  Jeb Hedgecock is a senior arts major.  He partnered with an engineering student to produce "a prosthetic arm, made from a soft material, that when inflated it could grab objects.  It’s a perfect example of something scientific in need of artistic creation, in this case sculpture, which Hedgecock is specializing in as part of his studies.  “My part of the deal was that I needed to design the hard plastic part of the prosthetic that would connect to the arm," he says.  That pushed Hedgecock out of his learning comfort zone, which he says is a good thing.  "For me, I didn’t know how to use the software to design it and get it 3-D printed," says Hedgecock.  "So in addition to sketching it out, making it beautiful, presenting it to my group, and making sure with my partner it made sense for the prosthetic, I also learned how to use software.”

Asheville is a city well-known for its arts scene, and Sarah Sanders says this lab will only enhance that.  “We have equipment that most working artists don’t have access to.”  Sanders eventually wants students to work with those artists at the lab, sharing the equipment to create their wares.  On this day, there were cutting the school logo into different materials.  The logo is the letter ‘A', the same letter added to STEM to make STEAM.