Rethinking Arts & STEM
A MiddleWeb Blog
I’m currently teaching a STEM/STEAM online course for Powerful Learning Practice with my arts expert buddy of 20 years – Nancy Flanagan. Our task, among other things, is to show how to put the “A” in STEM. We both have points of agreement, points of divergence, and plenty of questions.
And we’ve discovered that there are some real differences of opinion in thinking about how the Arts should be incorporated – or even if they should be incorporated.
(My alternate title for this post is: “STEAMING” STEM – Explain how, please!)
So let me run some of these ideas by you . . .
The Pure STEM Perspective. Many STEM advocates hold that the initiative was developed for one purpose: to deepen students’ understanding of fundamental concepts in science and math, and have them apply these using basic principles in engineering and technology. They have a point.
The U.S. is falling significantly behind other industrialized nations in preparing our students in the sciences and mathematics. (If you’re interested in the statistics that support this, go to Change the Equation for the details.) The 2010 College and Career Readiness report found only 43% of graduates were ready for college work in math and 29% were ready in science. And – no surprise here – business leaders are sounding alarms concerning our students’ lack of preparation for the workplace.
So, from a purist point of view, a successful STEM education provides students with science, math, and engineering/technology in sequences that build upon each other and can be used with real-world applications to provide innovative solutions to problems associated with science and technology. Adding other subjects would water down the focus on the core STEM competencies and weaken the initiative.
The Pure Art Perspective. In a similar fashion, some artists I know – the ones with a deep, rich love for Art (with a capital “A”) are also having a bit of trouble seeing Art as an add-on to STEM curriculum. Here’s a reaction from professional musician Scott Jolly (yes, he’s my son, at right) to the idea of adding Art to STEM:
When we perform, when we watch, we communicate. We commune with one another, laughing together, crying together, sharing moments. We realize our feelings, our desires, our fears are not unique, we are not in this alone. And the great works of art and great artists are able to do this with a power and beauty that lifts our spirit, elevates our thinking and enriches our experiences. It’s the best part of what makes us human.
Engineering and technology can certainly serve the artist and evolve the art. But if we’re talking about how one can use art in engineering, as an artist, it seems you’re missing the point and de-valuing, or not realizing, Art’s purpose and importance. It seems you have it backwards.
The “We Need STEAM” perspective. I mentioned this dilemma to Sammy Parker (You’ll remember Sammy from his post on STE(A)M: The Important Nexus of STEM and the Arts.) who feels that a stronger alliance between the two is extremely advantageous to both. He writes, in part:
We’re really talking in this STEM/STEAM discussion of lower-case “a”rt [and] how aspects of that can inform or advance for students the understanding, appeal, and ultimate value of STEM and vice versa. It’s not a zero-sum valuation game where one or the other must be lessened in some way(s) to elevate the value of the other. It’s about searching with clear-eyed diligence to see as many relational points as possible (e.g., creativity, critical thinking, elegance in execution, precision, balance, symmetry, analogical and comparative modes of seeing and expressing).
No, we don’t need a package of nifty STEAM lessons. Rather, we need to be able to teach most effectively and reach and engage students most widely in individual subjects’ core concepts–whether technological, computational, artistic, or creative. In a multidisciplinary way we need to use the elements of both STEM and art when and where they most logically relate and can assist most productively in students’ learning.
Tough? yeah. Worthwhile? Research and anecdote imply numerous positive results and possibilities, so yeah, also. Work every time? Nah; but then, what does? Enough to be educationally valuable? I think so.
The “So what do we do now?” Question
Tackling the unresolved tug-of-war between STEM and the arts has left Nancy and me struggling a bit. If we are to have STEAM in schools – and a there’s a big push for this – then what are our options? Here are four ideas we came up with:
1. You can use the STEM subjects to serve the Arts. For example, you might have kids design musical instruments to produce beautiful music. (Speaking of that, here’s a Landfill Harmonic video you don’t want to miss! Wow!)
2. You can use the Arts and Artists to serve STEM. In other words you can use art to add value to the products kids engineer by making them more attractive, appealing, or marketable. I think, in this sense, this would be tying art and industrial design together. You can also bring in artists and art students to help with innovative design ideas for devices to be developed.
3. You can agree to stretch the definition of engineering to include engineering the human experience. Using this approach, a dance or a musical production could be considered a product of “engineering.” This is my least favorite option because I think it weakens the STEM process. After all, to be STEAM, the engineered product (a dance, a musical production, a painting,) must use math and science in a significant way, and be tied to real math and science standards.
4. You can just keep arts and STEM separate. If you do, just know this – industrial design will be a part of STEM by default. Kids will find ways to improve the aesthetics, usability, and even the functionality of a product by using applied art. So in the end analysis, the art happens whether or not it’s intentionally planned.
My editor will definitely say I’m over the word count by now so I’ll wait until another post to blog about something I really want to clarify . . . What Isn’t STEAM? A lot of stuff flying under the STEAM banner doesn’t qualify – and the same is true for some things under the STEM banner.
Another post, for another day.
Also see Nancy Flanagan’s post “STEAM-Roller” at her Education Week Teacher blog.