Have you noticed the new “A” that’s been sneaking into conversations about STEM education? In the eyes of many educators, STEM is old news. STEAM is in.

What is STEAM? Why the change? And what does this mean in actual classrooms? To answer these questions, let’s first take a quick step back to look at why STEM education became so prevalent in the first place.

STEM education is founded in the belief shared by many qualified professionals that by focusing on these keys areas — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — today’s students and tomorrow’s global leaders will bring forth innovative ideas that will help create a sustainable future for all.

In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama stated that, “Today, more than ever before, science holds the key to our survival as a planet and our security and prosperity as a nation.”

But here’s the problem: in America, the STEM job market is increasing three times faster than the rest of the economy, but only 4.4% of American undergraduates are enrolled in STEM programs.

While STEM education in the U.S. is particularly unpopular, Canada, by comparison, is producing just 18.6% of STEM undergraduates, and even the most STEM-successful nations like Singapore and China come in at 33.9% and 31.2% respectively.

The result? A massive shortage of qualified high-tech workers globally.

Long time art educator and STEM advocate, Michelle H. Land, points to a “lack of creativity and innovation” in STEM programs as the root cause of why students aren’t enrolling in these majors.

Which gets us to the new “A” that’s all the rage: arts. Art and design are hugely important components to learning science and technology because of their unique ability to spark the creativity and innovation current STEM programs are lacking.

Naysayers often point to a “watering down” effect of core STEM principles by including another discipline, but in reality, art education can actually serve as a vehicle for improving comprehension and application of STEM learning.

In her paper titled, “Full STEAM Ahead: The Benefits of Integrating the Arts Into STEM,” Land states that, “Adding the arts into the STEM equation can re-invigorate the platform, providing not only an interesting approach, but also opportunities for the self-expression and personal connection new generations crave.”

This image perfectly sums up the problem with a strictly STEM education, and why art and design are critical components of the learning process:

STEM education is just that — the stem of an idea, of innovation, and of creativity. By only teaching students the rigid step-by-step processes we leave no room for curiosity and self-motivation.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), creator of the graphic, captioned their creation: “STEM is an important factor in achieving innovations today, but it’s only half of the puzzle — there needs to be a humanizing force to any invention for it to become relevant and important.”

Land agrees, stating: “Progress does not come from technology alone but from the melding of technology and creative thinking through art and design.”

Robert Root-Burnstein’s 2012 study of scientific Nobel laureates titled “Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma Xi Members,” demonstrated that most of the scientific geniuses between 1902 and 2005 were proficient in not just science, but the arts as well. Think about it: Einstein was an accomplished violinist; da Vinci was just as much a scientist, engineer, and inventor as he was a Renaissance painter and sculptor. We idolize these figures. They are the personal embodiment of STEAM.

Land goes on to explain that standardized tests measure students on memorization rather than comprehension. “In preparation for the exams, a student is taught that only right and wrong answers exist. The real world is not in black and white. We must encourage the youth of tomorrow to seek out multiple solutions to complex problems, and the addition of the arts within the STEM fields can combat this issue.”

So, what does this mean for classrooms and educators? How does STEAM education actually manifest itself?

Let’s start with this fact: as Land explains, “when an individual is taught a single concept, the brain creates neural pathways connecting that concept to his or her experience. The more access points or neural pathways established, the greater the chance of retention and recall.”

This should be the core value of STEAM education: creating a more well-rounded learning experience in an effort to enhance ALL learning — whether it’s science, technology, engineering, art, or math. “Integrating the arts into core content areas not only enables students to explore a single concept from different vantage points,” Land says, “but it also utilizes all the different modalities of learning (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic), both leading to the formation of more neural pathways.”

Erik W. Robelen of Education Weekly highlights a couple on-the-ground examples of bringing the arts and STEM learning together:

The Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, with support from a $1.1 million Education Department grant, is working with city schools to help elementary students better understand abstract concepts in science and mathematics, such as fractions and geometric shapes, through art-making projects.

High school students in several U.S. cities, meanwhile, compete for an annual ArtScience Prize. First launched in Boston in 2008, the contest fuses concepts in the arts and design with the sciences. The theme of last school year’s curriculum and contest was the Future of Water. This year, it’s Virtual Worlds, and next, the emerging field of synthetic biology.

But it’s important not to put the horse before the cart, even the biggest STEAM supporters argue. “There is no question, to me, the critical missing piece is the data,” says Harvey Seifter, director of the Art of Science Learning. Despite witnessing the power of the intersection of art and science throughout his career, Seifter sees a critical need for a “solid body of empirical knowledge about what the arts bring to the STEM equation.”

Until that time, the fact remains that the overarching goal of education is to prepare learners for the responsibilities and encounters that take place in adulthood. While STEM will continue to be a core knowledge area of our species’ future success, it has become clear that without simultaneously tapping into the arts and allowing learners freedom of expression, STEM ideas cannot fully come to fruition.

The arts form a critical component of science and technology. It’s integral to idea generation and creating good user experiences. For example, here at Zorbit’s Math Adventure, we have four main product development departments: design, art, audio, and programming. Every individual in each department is a master of their own domain, but they must also understand each others’ processes and requirements to effectively do their job. Feedback between the departments flows constantly. Every technologist has a little bit of artist in them, and vice versa. Without this, we could never function effectively as a team, and could never produce resources of such quality.

STEM has become STEAM. Now it’s time to fuel the fire. Let us know how you plan incorporate art and design into your STEM courses!

Written By: Zorbit's Math Adventure

Written By: Zorbit's Math Adventure

Zorbit’s Math Adventure is a game-based learning program for K-3 math, created by a team of experienced teachers, educators, & game designers. The curriculum-based math activities engage young learners in rich, immersive environments that are cognitively & developmentally appropriate for their age. Aligned to all curricula within North America, Zorbit also delivers teachers a suite of tools & resources to help close learning gaps & differentiate instruction.


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