To STEM or to STEAM? – that is the question.
In 2006, the U.S. National Academies, expressing their concern about the state of education in our country, recommended improving K-12 math and science education. In 2007, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which authorized funding for STEM initiatives, kindergarten through graduate school. I think most everyone would agree that we are not where we had hoped we would be. 2012 National Assessment of Education Progress tests results showed only a tiny increase in 8th grade science scores over 2009. This same test showed that 4th, 8th, and 12th graders performed poorly when asked to use problem solving and critical-thinking skills in laboratory settings. So why aren’t these initiatives working?
Now, President Obama has announced a major initiative to create a national Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps. This is to underscore that STEM education is a top priority for the Obama administration. “A world-class STEM workforce is essential to virtually every goal we have as a nation – whether it’s broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, and longer, healthier, lives for all Americans.”
Of course, this is important for the future of the United States. But, I believe it is equally vital that “longer, healthier, lives for all Americans” include reference to productive, creative, fulfilled, happier, inspired lives as well. We truly need to focus on developing creativity in order to help achieve these lofty goals – otherwise , I believe , all these initiatives are doomed to continue to fail.
Creativity is developed through active participation in the arts.
There are many educators who understand that the arts must be included in the STEM movement. It is through the arts that creative minds are developed, that both sides of the brain are engaged, that free expression and out-of-the-box thinking are encouraged. Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo weren’t just artists, they were also amazing scientists who saw no barrier between the arts and science. Albert Einstein was a scientist actively playing the violin.
In a useful book on this topic, From STEM to STEAM, authors David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki, present “convincing evidence from research studies in cognitive and social neuroscience that demonstrate how activities associated with the arts enhance creativity, problem solving, memory systems, motor coordination, and analytical skills – all critical elements to achieving the STEM objectives.”
When school systems around the U.S. made the decision to decentralize in the 70’s, eliminate content specialists, and most dramatically – the arts – test scores began to suffer and creativity in our youth flagged. It is little wonder, then, that the United States education system is no longer ranked first in the world. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the result of having dropped the arts as a priority in our public school systems.
I understand that there are competing priorities in our schools. With the increased focus on teaching STEM subjects, there are fewer hours in the day. With ever tightening budgets, the arts are often seen as unessential “extras,” and are reduced or eliminated. And, the mania over test scores has only increased this deplorable trend, to the detriment of our children, and more often those in low-income schools.
Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the D.C. Public Schools, once said to me – “the arts are fundamental to an excellent education.” And, she supported that statement by ensuring that all DCPS schools had a music teacher and a visual arts teacher. This is a good start. This needs to happen in all school systems across the country.
The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is incorporating STEM concepts into its mid-week youth concerts, in an effort to support the natural connections between music, science and math. Our teaching plans are designed to help teachers provide opportunities for their students to think more creatively, to problem-solve, to draw on their curiosity and perception skills, to construct meaning and express observations accurately. Truly with STEAM we believe we can help to make a difference through the power of music.
I can only hope that the leaders of our country begin to finally realize that the arts must be a priority in the education of our children. Albert Einstein stated that “the mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.”