STEAM-ing up STEM, in Congress and the Classroom

How does art plus science lead to innovation? Educators and future employers are taking a closer look.

On May 7, leaders from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) unveiled an online map of STEAM programs as part of a briefing for members of the Congressional STEAM caucus. STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

The caucus launched about one year ago to “change the vocabulary of education to recognize the benefits of both the arts and sciences—and their intersections—to our country’s future generations.”  The caucus has grown from 11 to 62 members, including 5 from Pennsylvania. STEAM programs are invited  to add themselves to the map, which tracks STEAM-related efforts related to research, education, policy, and industry.

From educators to legislators, increasing numbers of thought leaders are realizing that although new focus on math, science, and technology is important, adding arts to the mix creates important synergy.

As Steven Ross Pomeroy, assistant editor for Real Clear Science, noted in a guest blog for Scientific American, Nobel laureates in the sciences are far more likely to be painters, poets, or musicians than the average scientist.

Astronaut Mae Jemison once debated whether to pursue medical school or a dance career. Though medical school won, she has never lost sight of the connections between science and art. Both are rooted in creativity. “E = mc2 required an intuitive leap, and the analysis came afterwards,” she observed in a 2002 TED talk.

Art, says RISD’s President John Maeda, helps us see things in new ways.

“Our economy is built upon convergent thinkers,” he said, “people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities.”

Innovation, Maeda says, comes from bringing these two kinds of thinkers together—something that’s going to be crucial in educating the next generation of workers. Employers, increasingly agree. Representatives from Intel, Boeing and Lockheed Martin all spoke in support of STEAM at the May 7 briefing.

STEAM learning, said Congressional STEAM Caucus Cochair Aaron Schock, will help “produce graduates with the skills industry identifies as vital in new hires, including collaboration, trial and error, divergent thinking skills, and dynamic problem solving.”

But bridging the cultural divide between the disciplines remains a challenge in the classroom. Pioneering educator Meghan Reilly Michaud sees the connections constantly and makes them apparent to her art students at Andover High School in Massachusetts. Michaud, a RISD graduate who now serves on the school’s board of trustees, uses design examples to make the link. “Every time you put on an item of clothing, somebody designed it. When you buy toothpaste, somebody designed the box, the tube, even the cap,” she said in a video produced by PBS NOVA Education.

When Andover teachers began writing their school’s strategic plan, Michaud realized many of her colleagues didn’t know what STEAM was or why it was important. At the same time, many teachers were already putting STEAM to work in their classrooms without realizing it. To raise awareness and make those connections more apparent, she and her math department colleagues launched a new project, “Geometry Through the Lens of Art,” in which freshmen studying art, geometry, or both courses take field trips to local museums to discover the connections between geometric concepts and artistic tools such as perspective.

Recently she hosted an engineering roundtable for teachers across multiple disciplines—art, engineering, math, and physics—to develop a coherent sequence of bridge-related experiences for students in their high school years.

Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy takes a similar hands-on, STEAM-oriented approach to unleash its students’ creativity. Whereas time devoted to the arts has been curtailed across the nation, Sci-Tech high schoolers spend more than an hour a day in a music technology class—and middle schoolers spend two hours a day, according to a recent story from WESA 90.5.

“I always feel like I’m just as much a part of the curriculum, of the pulse of the school, as anyone else,” music technology teacher Matt Ferrante told WESA. Elsewhere for example, he said, arts classes can be sacrificed during standardized testing times. “Something like that is never going to happen here.”

Published May 28, 2014