The Many Themes of STEAM
Back in May, I shared my reservations about efforts to “turn STEM to STEAM.” I didn’t question “whether the arts and sciences are connected. What was missing for me 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 disciplines together in a thoughtful and authentic way is something entirely different.”
Since then, I’ve had the privilege of spending several days with other members of the Arts and STEM Collaborative for 21st Century Learning, a cohort of arts and science education leaders from across Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego Counties. We’ve met three times since the summer, and despite our thoughtful conversations, I had a nagging question: is STEM-to-STEAM simply about the integration of the arts and STEM subjects? If so, can we take an existing definition of arts integration (I’m a fan of the one developed by The Kennedy Center), declare the S, T, E, and/or M the “other subject area,” and call it a day? If not, why not? How is STEAM different?
Many pondering-in-traffic and musing-in-the-shower hours later, I had a thought. The STEM movement has its share of complications (math is very different from science which is very different from engineering, and promoting integration between those pesky four letters is a massive project in and of itself), but when members of our Collaborative talked about it we seemed to have a consistent understanding of what it is. When we talked about arts and STEM, however, we circled around three broad themes of intersection between art and science education:
- STEAM as a way to promote design thinking. This theme emerges in the overlap between visual art, technology, and engineering. It’s about getting students to create things that are useful, beautiful, and possibly unconventional. Thanks to Steve Jobs, I think it’s also what business leaders have top of mind when they advocate for a STEAM approach in education.
- STEAM as a way to promote inquiry-driven learning. This theme extends across all arts disciplines, but of the STEM disciplines aligns itself most closely with science. It describes artistic and scientific processes as parallel means by which children make sense of the world. It is a manifestation of constructivist learning theory, in which students learn by exploring and creating. In my experience, it’s also what many elementary generalist educators describe when they talk about STEAM.
- STEAM as a way to learn STEM concepts while engaging in creative expression. Of the three, this theme comes closest to applying STEM to a pre-existing definition of arts integration. (Think of a lesson that allows students to explore physics concepts through dance.) It applies to any combination of arts and STEM disciplines. I haven’t heard a lot of science educators talk about STEAM this way, particularly not at the secondary level, but arts educators, and to a lesser extent generalist teachers, do it frequently.
A few caveats are in order: these thoughts are at their early stages, and are by no means a comprehensive list of everything that STEAM is or could be. While these themes fall under the STEAM umbrella, I don’t think they are mutually exclusive or hierarchical. They do, however, have distinct foci, and varying levels of appeal to different members of the education community. When we don’t distinguish between them, we run the risk of confusing people, and of missing an opportunity to advance this dialogue on a broad scale.
When I shared these initial thoughts with the Arts and STEM Collaborative, several people (particularly those on the STEM side) had mini eureka moments. For whatever reason, acknowledging those themes made it easier for them to grasp what we mean when we talk about art – and got us excited about the multiple approaches to partnership, pedagogy, and advocacy they offer.
We’ll be fleshing these out in the coming months. In the meantime, do these themes resonate with you? Do they clarify or confuse your thinking? Did I miss any? What do your STEM colleagues think of this?