STEM to STEAM Reflections (v. 2)
Four years ago, when I first heard the phrase “turn STEM to STEAM” – i.e. add the arts to the federally-recognized acronym for science, technology, engineering and math -- I was skeptical.
As a theater geek born to a physician and biologist, I understood that the artistic process and scientific process have a lot in common, and that participants in each arena can learn a lot from one another.
My skepticism was not rooted in whether the arts and sciences are connected. What was missing for me as the “STEM to STEAM” mantra started to pick up more and more (ahem) steam was an articulation of how they are connected. Sure, there are elements of geometry in visual art, and yes, you need to understand basic math in order to read music or follow rhythms in dance. But arranging letters on a page is one thing; bringing different disciplines together in a thoughtful and authentic way is something entirely different.
In my mind, the ability to articulate and explore the authentic relationships between the S, T, E, A and M is crucial. The arts and the STEM subjects have similar processes, but provide different means of understanding what currently exist, as well as imagining what does not yet exist. If we want the STEM to STEAM movement to have longevity, we need to get specific about what those relationships are.
Luckily some people have already tried to do that, and we have an opportunity to build on their work. Later this month, thanks to the leadership of The Boeing Company, about thirty stakeholders from across the arts and STEM communities in Los Angeles and Orange Counties will be coming together for a two-day retreat to explore the natural alignment between the arts, STEM and Common Core. In preparation for the retreat a colleague introduced me to the work of Georgette Yakman, a researcher and educator from Virginia who has been developing her own educational framework for STEAM since 2006.
The framework defines STEAM as “science and technology, interpreted through engineering and the arts, all based on mathematical elements.” That definition evolved since Yakman began her work. In an earlier version, she articulated the relationships as follows: “We now live in a world where you can’t understand science without technology, which couches most of its research and development in engineering, which you can’t create without an understanding of the Arts and Mathematics.“ (You can read Yakman’s description of how she developed and refined the framework here.)
Yakman defines “the arts” very broadly, which I know many readers of this blog may take issue with. Some elements of the framework don’t ring true to me, but it excites me as an honest and thoughtful attempt to articulate how these various disciplines represent different ways of understanding the world. It also raises a lot of intriguing questions. Is there a way to flip the relationship between science/technology and the arts, so that the arts are interpreted through science? (Is that what conservators do?) Are there any other ways to make the arts the end goal? And if not, are we okay with that?
Our retreat between Los Angeles and Orange counties will raise even more questions and hopefully provide some answers. In the meantime, I invite you to begin pondering them within your own communities. What do you make of Georgette Yakman’s framework? How would you articulate your own understanding of how the arts, science, technology, engineering and math relate to one another?