The Four Minutes That Changed STEM to STEAM
If you were in Washington, DC a few weeks ago, you might have participated in several events surrounding the National Arts Action Summit, now marking its 29th consecutive year of arts advocacy days on Capitol Hill.
One of those events might have been the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy, delivered by John Maeda, designer, technologist, and catalyst behind the national movement to transform STEM to STEAM. He was introduced by co-chair of the Congressional STEAM Caucus, Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR).
How did this duo come together before a crowd of over 1,200 to talk about STEAM on the national stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts—for a lecture about how STEAM makes STEM taste better?
Well, I’m leaving that origin story to another time…to share out instead the policy wonkiness that—through the work of Rep. Bonamici—has the potential to change everything for the next generation of students, simply by providing an opportunity.
The Key Moment
Rewind with me a few months. Back to four minutes of congressional debate on November 19, 2015.
In that rare conference committee work, Rep. Bonamici offered an amendment to the consideration of the final conference report to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
This committee was meeting to agree to a final version of legislation, ironing out the differences between House-passed and Senate-passed versions of new federal K-12 education law. This was the final meeting of the final step in the legislative process to reauthorize the nation’s education policies…this was the last train out of the station…probably for over a decade.
Mind you, this law dates to 1965. As it gets reauthorized (about generationally), it’s renamed. Its latest version had been No Child Left Behind, long overdue for reauthorization as its good intentions unraveled to reality—and nearly every state was operating under a waiver from its requirements until Congress succeeded in this rewrite, finally signed into law on December 10, 2015: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
Leading up to this conference committee moment back in November, at many different times over the past few years, Rep. Bonamici (uniquely serving on both the House Education committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology committee) has brought forward the benefits of STEM to STEAM. When she started, there wasn’t even a Congressional STEAM Caucus. Now with nearly 80 members and growing, the Caucus she co-founded can, for the first time, point to clear federal policy that supports and encourages STEAM.
Give Me the Play-By-Play
As is the procedure of a conference committee, Rep. Bonamici was recognized and offered her amendment, asking for its support.
Chairman Kline then spoke and shared his thoughts, stating it is “important we increase participation in STEM programs.” He announced his support and encouraged others to support it.
The House conferees then voted, and with that, the amendment passed the first step.
It was then the Senate’s turn, and Chairman Alexander picked up the play. He spoke and described the amendment as a “helpful amendment.”
You might be thinking, there’s a “but” here. And in fact, no! Chairman Alexander instead reiterated that the amendment does not mandate anything. He described it as an “expression of the importance of relating arts to STEM academic programs, where states, teachers, and local school districts think that’s important.” He offered his support. He then turned to Sen. Murray who shared her view that “integrating arts and other disciplinary subjects is important” and shared her support.
With that, the Senate conferees voted, and amendment passed the Senate.
A long pause then followed. And then the key words from Chairman Kline, who presided as chair of the overall conference committee, “The amendment…is…adopted!”
What the Amendment Does
Rep. Bonamici’s amendment added text in two places within the well-rounded section of the bill. This section describes activities to support “well-rounded educational opportunities.”
Initially, Congress listed 9 eligible programs and activities. The list included things like “programs and activities that use music and the arts as tools to support student success through the promotion of constructive student engagement, problem solving, and conflict resolution.” It also included “programming and activities to improve instruction and student engagement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, including computer science.” And now, thanks to Rep. Bonamici, it lists 10 eligible programs and activities. The new add: “programs and activities that support educational programs that integrate multiple disciplines, such as programs that combine arts and math.” Otherwise known as STEAM!
But that’s not all. Her amendment also includes this very helpful description of an example of how to improve instruction and student engagement in STEM, one of those other eligible well-rounded activities: By “integrating other academic subjects, including the arts, into STEM programs to increase participation in STEM, improve attainment of STEM-related skills, and promote well-rounded education.” Again, otherwise known as STEAM!
Why Did the Amendment Pass
A lot of work led to that moment. You can be sure that all the four key leaders – House Chairman John Kline (R-MN), House Ranking Member Bobby Scott (D-VA), Senate Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Senate Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) – knew about the amendment in advance. And, in keeping with the tone of the rewrite, it did not mandate anything. There were no requirements. It just allows. In fact, in listening to Rep. Bonamici describe it, she emphasized it as expanding the list of allowable activities; gives the option; does not limit.
Because of that groundwork, her amendment passed unanimously and opens the doors to new opportunities—should states, teachers, and local school districts decide to seize them during implementation of the new law that is now underway.
And now, your promised 4 minutes that changed everything: