These days you hear a lot about STEM – a national educational initiative in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEM (education being second only to the military in the creation of acronyms) came about in response to assessments that show United States students falling behind in these vital 21st Century Skill fields. The American Competitiveness initiative of 2006, and more recently the Educate to Innovate initiative of 2009, made funding available to support STEM initiatives; in the private sector, companies such as Time-Warner Cable and the Discovery Channel have become strong supporters.
Those of us working in the field of arts integration – and especially those who connect their arts offerings to STEM curricula – have been working hard to inject the “A” into this equation and thus move from STEM to STEAM.
As an educator, for me this is a natural. For over 20 years I’ve been using the science of sound to teach students and educators how to build better, more sophisticated musical instruments from simple materials, so the connection between science and the arts is very clear.
Throughout human history arts and sciences have gone hand in hand – indeed, the ancient Greek word “techne” means craftsmanship, craft or art. To Michelangelo, art and science were inseparable in advancing the field of knowledge, as evidenced by his incredibly beautiful drawings and sketches of human anatomy. In other examples, the pointillist “cells” of Seurat have become the pixels of digital displays; Richard Feynman’s exploration of plate juggling inspired his 1965 Nobel Prize-winning theory in physics.
Arts education engenders a creative and playful flexibility of mind that can enable a scientist – or a businessperson – to dream beyond the rational and woo the intuitive; to solve problems in unique and non-linear ways; and to wring the utmost impact out of limited resources.
It is only through science that art can be realized and understood. Think of the art and science that lies behind light and wavelengths, pigments and chemistry, energy and instruments, physics and dance, and engineering and sculpture, to name only a very few.
So how does this manifest itself in the field? I asked two good friends and colleagues to send me a brief report on their efforts to move from STEM to STEAM.
The first comes from Nancy Engen-Wedin, one of the Kennedy Center Partnership Team Members in Lincoln, Nebraska, with whom I had the privilege of working last spring:
“Our Science of Sound immersion project brought together the Lied Center for Performing Arts, Lincoln Public Schools Community Learning Centers, Time Warner Cable (TWC) and Kennedy Center teaching artist John Bertles of Bash the Trash. This partnership allowed us to offer a Science of Sound and Arts camp for 50 students to create hand-made “recycled” instruments. The students used their created instruments to perform at the Lied Center with the April Verch Band on March 30, 2011. A lot of different activities helped to make this partnership a success, including Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds program and their national interest in supporting STEM initiatives. Lincoln Public Schools created a curriculum that exemplified learning outcomes in science and art. The Science of Sound project is a perfect example of how communities, corporations and arts organizations can join forces to help inform, educate and inspire children.”
The second report comes from Babette Allina, Director of Government Relations at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD):
“Here at RISD, President John Maeda is leading an initiative to bridge STEM education practices and creative problem solving by placing art and design at the center of STEM. RISD’s office of Government Relations is responsible for advancing ‘STEAM’ policy, both locally and nationally. A recent Congressional briefing hosted by RISD in collaboration with Representative Jim Langevin demonstrated an overwhelming interest in integrative thinking for K-12 education. Additionally, a local event co-hosted by RISD, the Rhode Island Department of Education and Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council, marked Rhode Island’s existing commitments to fostering innovation through the addition of Art and Design to STEM education and research. By promoting what is happening in Rhode Island, we hope to encourage the integration of art and design in K-20 education, and motivate national research policy to place art and design at the center of STEM. The relevance of this work is clear – the policies that shape research and education practices in the U.S. will determine our future competitiveness.”
It is clear that the movement to include the arts as an integral component of science- and math-related education, to move from STEM to STEAM, is gaining strength nationwide – in the government, the private sector, and in education at all levels. We need to grow a generation of innovators like Steve Jobs, endowed not only with technological skills but the vision to know how to use those skills to change the world.
To find out more about STEM/STEAM, you can explore these articles and websites:
Stem Education Coalition website
STEM to STEAM at RISD
Time-Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds initiative