The Tug of War Over STEM vs. STEAM
A MiddleWeb Blog
The curriculum tug of war between proponents of STEM programs (science, technology, engineering, & math) and those who advocate for STEAM programs – which add art to the mix – is in full force. Whichever side you may be pulling for, let me throw out some more ideas and questions for you to mull over.
The eventual outcomes of this debate may seem less than earth-shattering, but with the pressing need for more highly skilled STEM professionals in the workforce, the decisions we make about the best use of educational resources could have economic and social aftershocks for decades to come.
Thinking about STEM
First, remember the why and what of STEM education. Both private and public sectors report that 21st-century workers require skills that many of today’s graduates don’t have. Students need more in-depth knowledge of math and science, plus the ability to integrate and apply that knowledge to solve the challenges facing our nation. And children who study STEM develop a variety of skills that are essential for success: including critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication, collaboration, and entrepreneurship, to name a few.
Our job as K-12 educators is to prepare our students for the world they will enter upon graduation. To meet those needs, K-12 STEM programs are being established to equip students with the specific 21st century knowledge and skills they need to be workforce and college ready.
A number of K-12 programs currently fly under the STEM banner. However, a 2014 study published by the America Society for Engineering Education identified several characteristics of quality STEM programs:
(1)The context is motivating, and engaging, and real-world.
(2) Students integrate and apply meaningful and important mathematics and science content.
(3) Teaching methods are inquiry-based and student-centered.
(4) Students engage in solving engineering challenges using an engineering design process.
(5) Teamwork and communications are a major focus. Throughout the program, students have the freedom to think critically, creatively and innovatively, and opportunities to fail and try again in safe environments.
STEM, then, is a specific program designed for a specific purpose – to integrate and apply knowledge of math and science to engineer technologies and solutions for real world problems, using an engineering design approach. To do that, it needs to maintain an intense focus on STEM courses.
Thinking about STEAM
Recently, the idea of adding the arts to STEM to form STEAM is gaining momentum. Interestingly, I’m hearing pushback on that idea from two camps.
1. From STEM proponents: If STEM is to develop rigorous math and science skills through engineering practices, then focusing on other courses at the same time waters down that goal. STEM already naturally involves art (product design), language arts (communication), social studies and history (setting the context for engineering challenges). STEM projects do not deliberately exclude art or any other subject; rather, these subjects are included incidentally as needed for the engineering challenge.
2. From Arts proponents: Art draws us together with a power and beauty that lifts our spirits, 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 viewing art in our schools simply as a way to serve engineering, it seems we’re missing the point and devaluing or not realizing art’s purpose and importance. It seems we have it backwards.
So, can the arts fit into a STEM program in a way that does justice to both STEM and the arts? What would a STEAM program look like?
That’s what artist and educator-turned-STEAM-enthusiast Ruth Catchen is determined to find out. Ruth “gets it” regarding STEM; she currently works with a team of STEM writers and program developers who are using crowdfunding to develop and pilot a STEAM program in Colorado.
According to Ruth, the arts are a great learning tool and can serve as an on-ramp to STEM for underrepresented students. Engaging student strengths using arts activities increases motivation and the probability of STEM success. She views arts activities as a way of offering more diverse learning and greater access to STEM for all types of learners.
Art also provides diverse opportunities to communicate. Ruth believes that in our technically focused world, we have a responsibility to educate the whole child to become a global citizen in his or her community. She aims to do just that while staying true to the specific purpose of STEM education.
How do we solve the STEM-STEAM conundrum?
Let’s circle back to the question of how to include the arts in STEM in an authentic way. We could change the scope of STEM so that it focuses equally on learning in all subject areas—but why do that? We already have effective teaching methods for this: project and problem-based learning.
So let’s try another question. Can we combine art with just one of the STEM subjects—perhaps science—and ignore meaningful subjects like math and engineering? We certainly could—but that would be just art and science, not STEAM.
What about students doing personal STEAM projects? Again – that’s not faithful to basic STEM principles which always include teamwork, so would that be STEAM or just a good individual project?
Here, for what it’s worth, is where my thinking is now. Your ideas and pushback are valued and welcomed as I try to figure this out.
Design. Art can serve a practical function. Students might apply design and decoration principles to products that were created during the course of a design challenge. They could use computer graphics to create logos or stylized designs to include in communications or presentations. Through industrial design, students could improve the appearance, design, and usability of a product created during a STEM project.
Performing arts such as drama and speech. What about technical or persuasive writing? Effective presentation? Those creative skills fit naturally into the “Communications” stage of the engineering design process. They would work well as part of a STEM project.
Creative planning. As students brainstorm solutions for an engineering problem, encourage them to adopt a playful, inventive, artistic approach. Calling on their artistic right brain can help them to generate more creative and innovative thinking.
Art is touted as a method of adding creativity to STEM, but keep in mind that engineers are not lacking for creativity and ingenuity. Our world contains many beautiful, useful, and imaginatively engineered creations. STEAM would not actually teach art (that’s for the art teacher to do) but would apply art in real situations.
An insight from Howard Gardner
All that to say, I don’t yet have a totally clear picture of what STEAM looks like. In my effort to find some clear examples, I came across a STEAM video that featured Dr. Howard Gardner, among others. I wrote to ask him if he had ideas for how to include art in STEM. He responded in a personal message: To answer your question in brief, I don’t have strong views about whether A (for arts) should become a part of STEM or be self-standing. What is important is that every human being deserves to learn about the arts and humanities, just as each person should be cognizant of the sciences.
I don’t think anyone can say it better than that. A STEM program is one part of a child’s education focused on math and science. Our children need a well-rounded quality education that enables them to make informed decisions that will impact the world and the way they live.
We need to educate students who are well-prepared and motivated to solve tomorrow’s STEM problems.
Note: This post is adapted and expanded from an earlier article I wrote for Education Week Teacher and the Center for Teaching Quality.
Credit: STEAM logo by Terry Williams