For decades, Roanoke’s economy has run on steam.
Appropriate, then, that STEAM could be what propels Star City into the future.
The acronym STEAM is a modification of STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Once home to the mighty Norfolk and Western Railroad, later Norfolk Southern, Roanoke has staked its future on STEM careers.
Municipal, higher education, business, and healthcare agencies and organizations have collaborated to form an “innovation corridor,” stretching north from Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Fralin Biomedical Research Institute to VTC at Riverside Circle, past Radford University’s Carilion Campus and RAMP Regional Accelerator for tech startup incubation, in downtown Roanoke.
Given the incredible feats of engineering once accomplished in Roanoke at the N&W East End Shops, where state-of-the-art steam locomotives for the time were designed and built, this “corridor of innovation” leads the way to be continued. We can’t resist quoting “Train True (Lennie’s Song)”, a delicious deep cut from Blue Oyster Cult: “You gotta have a brain when you’re working for the train.”
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A presentation Thursday at the Shenandoah Club hosted by Roanoke Blacksburg Technology Council associate director Taylor Spellman explained why STEM should be extended to STEAM, with the “A” for the arts.
“Having artistic and cultural facilities in the region is no longer a luxury. It is really essential. Having a strong cultural hub equals economic success,” Spellman said. “It drives tourism, it creates places, it creates a pool of talent and business and an enriched ecosystem with well-paying jobs and opportunities.”
Panel speakers – Cindy Petersen, Executive Director of the Taubman Museum of Art, Ginger Poole, Artistic Director of Production at Mill Mountain Theatre, and Ruth Waalkes, Executive Director of Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center – all spoke about how arts institutions they lead incorporate STEM education into their offerings.
“Music is math,” Poole said, and playing music involves calculating fractions. Lighting a scene, mixing colors, is calling on basic science. “To see a child make that connection,” she said, “is pretty magical.”
Taubman’s most recent special exhibition, “Titian to Monet,” features a collaboration with Roanoke College and the Moss Arts Center’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology that uses applications of artificial intelligence to create a 360-degree “immersive experience” with projected animations and music, based on six Old Master paintings.
Petersen cited research that adults participating in arts programs and exposed to a variety of artistic disciplines “have an increased sense of belonging, self-confidence” and stronger parent-school relationships, “even intra-family relationships , a better understanding of diverse cultures.”
Waalkes noted that Moss Arts Center programming and outreach has “been so vital to us in terms of recruiting and retaining faculty and families in Blacksburg and beyond.” Families “want to come to an area and know that they will keep these opportunities for their children to learn and engage, no matter what school system they are in.” Given how difficult recruiting has become, Moss’ artistic lineup gives the area an edge.
Community enrichment should always go hand in hand with economic growth. STEAM seems a more appropriate acronym for our valleys, due to both past history and current life – the added letter gives a fuller idea of the opportunities that can be found here.