Oct 1, 2013

Giving STEAM schools the full power of STEM

In my recent #EDTalk*, I was asked about STEAM. It's not the first time that I have been asked about how the Arts and STEM are related.

I deplore the elimination of the arts in favor for STEM, with the idea that the later will develop a more employable student. The two are important partners in reaching all kids and improving the creativity of students to apply STEM for our future technological world (see How engineering can save the arts). However, I do have some cautions.

Sadly, I have heard cases where art experts say they do STEM by incorporating simplified, cursory references to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Examples include counting as part of a dance lesson (math), representing the seasons in a series of drawings or paintings (science), using the computer (technology), or using a kit where each student's product looks the same as each other (engineering).

From the STEM side. I have seen the activities to be silos: The STEM is done first, and the performance of those concepts are a more "artistic" assignment: a drawing, a play, a poem, or a song.

I feel these approaches are more about the limited experience and knowledge of the current instructors. I make no claims on being an expert in art, which is what makes me such a good collaborator in these "consulting" gigs. I am eager to add more art understanding to my portfolio because it shows me more connections to STEM.

When I have taught art instructors -- whether performance or studio arts -- the basics of STEM, they realize the power that STEM understanding has to offer them to achieve their creative vision. This is what a real STEAM program needs to offer: deep instruction in both STEM and the Arts. It's not easy to do, but the results can be amazing.

Consider my touchstones when I think of a STEAM education:

Photo by Thomas Faivre-Duboz
via wikipedia.com
  • Les Paul. Inventor of electric guitar. Also played with electronics in his youth, making a crystal radio at the age of 9. I had a much greater appreciation for his self-made STEAM education after seeing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit.
  • Ken Knowlton. Early photomosaic artist. Computer professional used his technical expertise to create mosaics from individual photos: A portrait of President Obama made of separate photos of Obama.

George Rickey. Kinetic sculptor. Former Army engineer turned artist, creating sculptures that move. Pieces are either powered mechanisms or balanced structures that respond to the environment.
Photo via wikipedia.com
  • Start small. Connections between STEM and the Arts can start as early as elementary school, just on a smaller scale. For example, the kinetic sculpture starts with an understanding of center of gravity, which is also addressed in science simple machine (levers) lessons. Mobiles are a small scale concept of the lever ideas and are a classic project in art classes.
  • Parallel inquiry, engineering, and design processes. All are the ways that science, engineering, and art "step into the abyss" -- the unknown, the not-yet-made. Don't try to make them the same. Appreciate their differences to address the main focus of each discipline as well as their similarities. Otherwise, you risk diluting one for the others.
  • Think about technology as tools. Too many times, folks think of technology as computers. Computers are one of my tools of the trade, but it irks me when such a limited definition of "technology" is used. Computers were invented in the 1950s, maybe the 1940s if you include ENIAC. But all would agree that there have been technological advanced well before then. One way to start thinking broadly about technology is to think of it as tools for creation. For example, humans made holes first with their hands, then with a stick, then a shovel, then with power tools. Today, there are computer-controlled tools. Each represents a new technological change, and each have their own benefits.
  • See science and mathematics as methods of pattern finding and information packing. Mathematics is the tool used to find the patterns to predict what will give us our desired vision: Les Paul used knowledge of sound in materials to experiment with the solid guitar in pursuit of the sound he wanted.  Physics concepts about light and binary numbers allowed us to represent colored images with bitmaps. More mathematical processing permitted more efficient data packing so stretching and shrinking was possible with less memory.
So let's STEAM ahead together -- art and STEM educators -- to give STEAM the full power STEM has to offer.

*The #EDTalk was a great event put on September 24, 2013 at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall by AchieveMpls. Citizens League, Young Education Professionals-Twin Cities, DRIVE Emerging Leaders, and tpt.

Want to learn more about STEM+ (beyond STEM schools) or STEM in general? Contact Yvonne at Engineer's Playground.