Spying STEAM Projects from a Theatre Balcony

A MiddleWeb Blog

Music makes the beauty in my world – it brings the emotion and color and range of emotions that no other art form can do. Tonight I went to see the current production of Les Misérables.  And perhaps the biggest source of amazement and awe came from something I didn’t expect – the set engineering!

Now, if you’ve seen Les Mis, then you know that the sets for that show aren’t designed to be bright and glittery. Les Mis is about tragedy, pathos, and problems. The sets add important lighting, ambience, emotion, and life to the show – they draw you onto the stage itself and underscore the storyline and music.

The staging for this show became a source of constant interest and amazement for me. Scenes changed frequently – weaving in and out of the storyline and music seamlessly.  They changed unobtrusively and appeared to spill from one scene directly into another as they accentuated the drama and music.

How? I didn’t know. I decided to investigate how the engineering worked to manipulate the sets so smoothly. Apparently, the sets were designed to move on a motorized base structure (a turntable with sets of tracks) and were hinged so that they could move in all directions, including up and down. The combined talent of the artists and engineers who crafted and constructed sets so that sections can move in and out and connect in creative ways is mind-boggling.

The magic of theatrical productions

For me, theatrical encounters are magic. As the Les Mis production continued, I realized that art and engineering had truly merged into a single being and were working together to create the beauty, poignancy, and power of the whole experience.

That, my fellow readers, is STEAM. In this project, art and engineering were inseparable. Beauty and function shared equal billing. This musical production needed to convey a story and mood through music and movement. Engineering was necessary and integral to making that happen. (Notice that I’m not even going into the instruments and sound design aspects of productions such as this. Engineering was everywhere!)

From the Fisher Theatre in Detroit 

I’m assuming you’ve seen musicals and theatre drama, whether at a professional production like The Lion King or a local school play. It’s impossible to miss the integration of Art and Engineering on these occasions.

If (like me) you’ve wondered at times whether the acronym STEAM is a valid representation of a relationship between STEM and art – it certainly can be. But beware! Not every project billed as STEAM is truly a STEAM project in this integrated, interwoven sense.

Here’s my current definition: STEAM projects feature STEM challenges that cannot be solved or achieved without the A (arts). And vice versa. STEAM involves an intentional, necessary merger of art with STEM subjects to find solutions that bring meaning, life, learning, and/or enjoyment to people.

Where engineering meets art

You could make a case for art being part of all STEM projects simply because these projects generally involve drawing, sketching, using visuals, etc. Okay – it depends on your definition of what the A in STEAM entails. I’ve thought of STEAM like that myself.  But that casual use of “art” doesn’t really qualify as the “A” in STEAM according to my ever-changing way of thinking about this issue.

Having kids work on a solution for an environmental challenge and adding an art connection such as drawing a picture of the solution doesn’t do it for me. Art, in that case, isn’t actually required for the solution but is thrown in so that we can say we added art.  When the project requires both engineering and art for success, however – when the two truly marry and real learning occurs across all subjects – that’s a kind of STEAM I can embrace (and enjoy!).

Obviously, I’ve puzzled over the STEAM acronym for a while. (For example, look here, here, and here.) My editor’s patience with my STEAM posts is doubtless wearing thin (Sorry, John!), but my viewpoint is still developing. I’m not there yet. But I’m still mulling it over and learning.

What about STEAM Lessons, My Editor Wonders?

So much for lofty STEAM thoughts. Let’s get practical. What lesson plans are out there to involve kids in STEAM projects that marry art and STEM? Clearly theatre engineering is a starting point. We might come up with projects that apply engineering principles to design and develop safe, creative, and/or functional sets. Perhaps kids could design musical instruments or gadgets to produce particular sounds and effects. (Shakespeare always demands some device to produce a ghastly effect.)

On occasion I’ve seen engineering and theater “merge” by having kids use music and dance to act out some scientific idea – perhaps dramatically interpreting how electrons, protons, and neutrons combine to form a molecule. Sometimes students are asked to draw, dramatize, dance, or compose music to share a scientific concept. That’s cool, but where is the E? The engineering challenge? How does that require the application of current grade-level science and math content? I’m inclined to shake my head and discount that as true STEAM.

But let’s be fair to some other criteria in thinking about STEAM. Please take a look at this article, Science Theater as STEAM. The author offers other objectives that can be achieved through adding the arts: more permanent retention of knowledge, growing student enthusiasm for STEM, and teachers collaborating more closely, to mention three. So I guess I’m wondering – what’s your working definition/understanding of STEAM? The fact of the matter is, we may all be right – or wrong.

In my next blog post I plan to offer some STEAM lessons featuring my current favorite perception – the truest STEAM is an interdependent marriage of STEM and the arts to solve an engineering challenge. If you want to throw out some ideas, I’ll gratefully give them space.

Just for your students: Actor Gaten Matarazzo, then 11, offers a tour of the Broadway theater where he played Gavroche in 2014. From theatremania. Gaten now stars in Netflix’s Stranger Things. 


Anne Jolly’s bestselling book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is a Routledge/ MiddleWeb publication. MiddleWeb readers receive a 20% discount from Routledge with the code MWEB1. Visit Anne’s book website for many more articles and free STEM resources and lesson ideas.

Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her years as a middle grades science teacher in Mobile, AL. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher professional development materials for the Mobile Area Education Foundation's Engaging Youth through Engineering (EYE) initiative. Anne has also teamed with science and math teachers to help them develop and implement their own STEM curriculum. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/MiddleWeb.

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