As the head of an organisation that focuses on preparing 100,000 new STEM teachers for our nation’s classrooms, I get asked all the time what I think about STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics). People assume I’m opposed, but the opposite is true. While the country doesn’t have a need for more arts teachers, per se, we all need more STEM teachers to teach STEM in STEAM-y ways.
21st-century jobs require creative confidence, critical thinking and collaboration. Children need 21st-century learning opportunities that are no different. When the arts are part of STEM, STEM can come to life and spark connections for many more students to engage creatively, critically and confidently in their learning. As Jan Cohen, the Founder of UrbanMath Trails, recently told me: “Not enough connections are being made between art and math.”
Not enough connections are being made between art and math.
We need all kids to have the STEM skills and agency to become the problem solvers our world needs them to be. Our role as educators is to open as many doors as possible for students to get excited about learning and, specifically, STEM. Yet implicit bias and other structural impediments mean that we open fewer doors to girls, students of colour and kids from low-income and rural communities. When they don’t engage deeply in STEM, we all lose. But the arts have always been a haven for the otherwise marginalised, and arts education connected to STEM can open many possible doors.
When we start to look, natural overlaps and places of connection between the arts and STEM are everywhere – and always have been. As Dr. Jenny Nash, Head of the Education Solutions Design Team at LEGO Education, told me, “A baker uses chemistry. A chemist develops the makeup, and a computer animator designs the on-screen special effects used in the blockbuster movies we see in theatres. Experiencing STEAM subjects in an integrated way is more authentic and representative of the world we’re preparing students to enter.”
Experiencing STEAM subjects in an integrated way is more authentic and representative of the world we’re preparing students to enter.
The Mind Over Music programme is cut from the same cloth. Their programme, which pairs symphony musicians with classroom teachers and helps students integrate music into STEM, is reaping huge benefits. Average annual results show that when compared to control groups, Mind Over Music students score significantly higher in science and math compared with students who don’t participate.
Valerie Bontrager, Director of Education at the Phoenix Symphony, says that for these students, it’s all about new ways of looking at STEM.
“Those lessons elicit different entry points for the students, the teachers and the musicians,” she said. “When the Mind Over Music students come to the hall for a concert to see the musicians at work, their orientation to the concert is connected to the experience they’ve had in the classroom.”
At Explora, a science, technology and arts learning centre, learning is inter-disciplinary from the word go. Paint and spin-art might be used to explain centripetal force, or kids might apply principles they’ve learnt in math and science to build a kinetic sculpture.
“The arts allow us to expand ways of knowing and learning to inspire more learners,” said Tara Henderson, Explora’s Director of School and Community Programmes, drawing from the expertise and experience of her whole team. “An art-inclusive approach to STEM strengthens creativity and ingenuity in all areas,” she added.
An art-inclusive approach to STEM strengthens creativity and ingenuity in all areas.
Some say that architecture sits at the exact equilibrium between the arts and STEM, where artistic vision and aesthetic sensibility are brought to life within the constraints of what is structurally and materially possible. Frank Lloyd Wright once said “the mother of art is architecture." Wright credits plain wood blocks as his original material. The blocks, developed in the 1830s by Friedrich Froebel, a German educator and the inventor of kindergarten, were STEAM long before the acronym, helping children learn about geometric forms, mathematics and creative design.
This union of design, art and STEM is alive and well at the Bay Area Discovery Museum: “At the Bay Area Discovery Museum, all of our arts programmes have a specific link to STEM thinking and intentionally engage children in the design thinking process and emphasise creative problem solving,” said Janine Okmin, Director of Education. At the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Okmin explained, they “intentionally weave STEM and the arts together in lessons and projects to refute the narrative that there is a dichotomy between the two, or that you can only be good at one or the other.” Doing so “makes both more accessible and more relevant.”
Despite the opportunity inherent in blending the arts with STEM, “subject specific standards and assessments and scheduling create obstacles to teachers seeking to integrate in authentic ways,” Tom Peters, Director of the Coalition for Mathematics & Science at Clemson University, noted.
A connection to art can ignite the drive for more learning across disciplines and motivate us to continue seeking knowledge, creativity, expression – and new solutions.
These examples speak to how art can spark an excitement about learning that goes beyond the artistic to embrace science, math, technology and engineering. As is true in the best learning moments, a connection to art can ignite the drive for more learning across disciplines and motivate us to continue seeking knowledge, creativity, expression – and new solutions.
“Weaving the arts into STEM offers learners and their teachers another legitimate avenue for meaning making, problem solving and expressing understanding,” Peters shared with me. Dr. Nash concurred: “When we think about STEAM learning, we’re really thinking about the wide range of skills students need in a changing world,” she said. “With STEAM, students naturally see the endless possibilities and intersection points as they choose – even create – their own career paths.”
From the child preparing for a dance recital, whose movements are an exploration of physics, to the math behind Mozart’s Magic Flute, to the computer science and design synthesis that creates that eye-catching logo, integrating the A into STEAM can be life-changing for all of us.