STEM education–that’s science, technology, engineering, and math–has gotten an increasing amount of buzz over the past few years.
And now, there’s a twist on STEM: the addition of the arts, making it STEAM.
Supporters (including Elmo) say a more focused inclusion of the arts helps kids become creative, hands-on learners by sparking innovation.
A recent Michigan State study supports that notion, pointing to a higher number of patents created and businesses launched by adults who participated in arts and crafts in their younger years.
But the STEAM model’s still relatively new – and unproven.
Canton’s Hartford Middle School embraces the STEAM philosophy.
A week before the launch of the school’s second year using the curriculum, the hallways were packed at an open house.
Over the buzz of students, parents, and teachers getting acquainted, seventh grader Molly Blair said she tends to get the same question when she tells people about her STEAM school
“What’s that,” she said.
She’s ready with her standard explanation.
“I just tell ‘em what we actually do, what the letters all stand for, and by then they start to understand it,” she said.
The idea behind STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts and math – is to find ways to integrate the “A” into all class subjects, believing the fusion of arts and science gives students an edge to create and innovate.
It’s more a philosophy than a specific curriculum, emphasizing connections across subject areas and teaching kids to take what they’ve learned in one classroom and apply it in another.
And the arts should share equal status with STEM subjects, said art teacher Kathy Pugh.
“It has to be presented to the kids that it’s not an extra, that it is as important of a subject as your math,” she said.
After all, art and innovation are nothing new, she explained–just look at the Renaissance.
“Leonardo DaVinci, Michelangelo, they were well taken care of,” she said. “They were recognized by their creativity, their innovation, and their artistic ability. The artists were the ones who thought outside the box. It was the artists who came up with the new ideas.”
At Hartford, some aspect of art is included within the entire curriculum. For instance, students use using proportional ratios to create life-size models of storybook characters, or design a “dream bedroom” complete with 3D floor plans.
In science teacher’s Jeff Ferrara’s room, the walls are completely bare. But it doesn’t stay that way for long, he said. As students feverishly work their way through experiments and the design process, drawings soon line the walls.
“They come in, we throw those ideas up,” he said. “Diagrams kids draw from class to class to class. I like the idea of hanging something up and seeing everything at once.”
He’s a big supporter of the integration of the two disciplines.
“The real art of science is to have that creativity and to have that interest and that ingenuity to say ‘man, what happens if I mess with this? What happens if I try this?’ and dive in,” he said. “You have to have this piece there, which I think follows with art in taking that chance.”
But really, that viewpoint isn’t that new in education.
It’s only been over the past few years that there’s been more of a formal push to emphasize STEAM.
Among those leading the way is the Rhode Island School of Design.
It’s been an official STEAM supporter since around 2011.
Director of Government Relations, Babette Allina, said several big tech industry players–like Boeing and Intel–have already voiced their support of STEAM.
“They talked about STEAM education as highly relevant to their industry, that creativity was sort of at the center at what they’re looking for in their employees,” Allina said.
But, overall, STEAM as a bona fide education model is still unproven.
There are no universal requirements, and in Ohio programs don’t have to be certified through the state department of education.
Also, implementation can vary by school and teacher, which makes actual results hard to measure. There’s no real count of how many schools are using STEAM across the country; though RISD does offer an interactive map where STEAM users can self-report an exact location where they’re implementing programs.
Martin Storksdieck, director at Oregon State’s Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning, doesn’t think there will be a mass movement to integrate the arts with STEM.
“Once you say STEAM should replace STEM, then you say SHEM should replace STEM, and you put history and political science in there,” he said.
He’s right. Aside from STEM and STEAM, there’s already record of STREAM (science, technology, reading and writing, engineering, art and math).
But the STEAM concept has begun to catch on with both businesses and the government.
STEAM even has supporters on Capitol Hill. The Congressional STEAM caucus – comprised of about 20 House members from both parties – was formed to last winter to advocate for more integration of the arts with traditional STEM subjects.