Are We Missing The STEAM Boat?

I just finished reading a very important article from SLATE writer and Future Tense researcher, Anna Feldman. It is HERE.  This article is important as it summarizes my thoughts and addresses STEAM objections in a practical and realistic way, and of course, discusses the importance of adding the arts to STEM. I will forgive her as she quotes my friend and colleague Anne Jolly, from her EdWeek Teacher article on STEAM, a quote that I actually said and am credited with in that article, which is HERE. 

The important thing is the needed attention to what adding the arts to STEM education can do. There are objections of course, most notable taking away attention and time from REAL STEM subjects. This fact disregards the integrated nature of STEM and how you must be able to do "other things" as well. In addition, the arts offer a wide range of possibilities making students STEM ready and STEM capable. Perhaps they really are an "on-ramp" for going deeper in STEM subjects. Or perhaps they are an "on-ramp" that goes to a variety of pathways.

We need STEM skilled workers to accelerate progress and ensure we have workers for the future and for jobs for students now in school. There is extensive reporting on how the US has fallen behind and needs STEM workers. At the same time, we are slowly advancing in the number of STEM workers we produce. Some say we have enough. The issue still to solve is equity for underrepresented populations and this issue needs attention. The arts are key to interesting and engaging this group. It is not only the STEM subject matter and the way it is approached, but also the scope and variety that can be a STEM subject.

There is so much art in science and mathematics.  Design equipment, new technologies. Be ready for all of the 21st century innovations that include what a robot can do, and what we can code!  There are things to make and build. We want to keep the aesthetic value and its importance to learning. Critical thinking and problem solving are enhanced by arts experiences, and encourage taking risks and trial and error. In addition these experiences do positive things for the neural connections in our brain, helping memory and expanding potential. We must encourage a Growth Mindset and Divergent Thinking.

If you are a reader of my blog, none of this is news. I close with a quote from Feldman's article that clearly states the need for the arts in STEM education:

But the STEAM movement isn’t about spending 20 percent less time on science, technology, engineering, and math to make room for art. It’s about sparking students’ imagination and helping students innovate through hands-on STEM projects. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about applying creative thinking and design skills to these STEM projects so that students can imagine a variety of ways to use STEM skills into adulthood.

Another great article on How the Arts Develop the Young Brain.

CREATIVITY!!! You can't just tell someone to be creative!

The debate over education reform is ongoing. Everyone has a stake in the game, and after all, it is about our children, our future, and that affects everyone. Each one of us has had an education, and as a result, believes THEY KNOW. The wide variety of outcomes allows for assorted opinions on what is best, but each vision exhibits passion and their version of best practices.

Recent years show incredible push and publicity for STEM education to solve our country's problems. STEM is everywhere. We need workforce development! And, we do. Rescue our falling behind students and create students who are competitive on the global stage. Improve skills in mathematics, science and engineering while understanding the development of new technologies (STEM). There may not be future jobs to fit current skill levels for the much of the population, but there are a lot of jobs, and well-paying ones, for the STEM skilled workforce.  There are more jobs than people qualified to fill them. STEM education will fill the void. (Mind you, there are those who don't agree with this saying we are producing enough STEM workers, yet most of the data points to the former).

My belief in STEM education reads more as passion than protocol. This inquiry based way to learn can cover so much of what students need to know and be able to do, and at the same time, offer them skills in being in charge of their own learning while discovering how and why to learn rather than what to learn. No more memorizing in this age of instant information. It is time to use and apply that knowledge and solve problems. On a variety of levels, this type of learning and facility with both math and science creates students who can "engineer" through trial and error to solve real world problems. Every day problems. This type of education is ideal. It creates life long learners and resourceful, resilient citizens.

So to the point. . . We know more or less what STEM is, although some may define it differently, for the most part we agree that it is integrated learning combining the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The argument often comes from what else does it include? You can't do those things without reading or an understanding of history and our progress as a society. And yes, embrace the BIG one:  THE ARTS!

Along with pressure to build a future-thinking workforce, there is also a need to inspire creativity and innovation. So, how do you teach someone to be creative?

Many think you can't, but you can. It becomes a way of looking at the world and a process of approaching work. That process or point of view can be illustrated, imitated, learned, and most of all discovered. Inspire new ways of looking at things - innovation - it roots itself in inquiry-based learning.

I keep beating the arts drum finding the many possible ways to include the arts and viable and imperative reasons to do so. I have been interviewed and quoted quite a bit. And yet, as much as I believe in this as a way to educate the whole child, all children, and their representative learning styles, I still wonder why and how we do this in a way that makes sense. In fact, education must be holistic and inclusive but still engage and enhance the STEM part of the whole thing. I do think that is essential. Along with that is the need to make empathetic, thinking human beings, and the arts are key to this end.

Arts experiences can cover a variety of learning possibilities: some that are directly related to STEM and some that are not. The arts help to develop cognitive skills in a way that nothing else does. The arts encourage students to take risks and give them confidence to try things that may not always go as hoped. The arts are collaborative and engaging and can serve as a way for students to use their strengths to learn and to demonstrate their knowledge. The arts add the opportunity for students to experience creative expression, play, and exploration. The value of the experience may be hard to measure, but students who are involved connect and grow.

You can’t tell someone to be creative and expect them to just do it. Experiencing creativity is powerful, and it expands with each additional opportunity. It is a risk to allow students to take a risk, but the benefits are mighty.

I write this endorsement from my heart and also from extensive research that supports these ideas. The arts can benefit, not only the way a student learns, but also the kind of 21st century citizen we need.

So ask me questions or shoot down my ideas. Be offended that I penetrate science and mathematics with drums and dance. Do we really have anything to lose? Or would you rather create robotic children who are ideal at filling in test bubbles, but have never experienced the joy of creating something new and explicitly personal?

What Does It Mean To Say STEAM?

Ruth Catchen, April 2015, Colorado Springs, CO


The acronym STEAM inherently ties itself to STEM, and it is my belief that there is no STEAM without STEM. Even though I create STEAM lessons and curriculum, I continue to question,  “What does it mean to say STEAM?”

Just as STEM means different things to different people, so does STEAM. The need to clarify what you mean, what you intend to include and what the outcomes should be, is important. Learning is an all-inclusive, never-ending process, so why not make STEM as STEAM, a pedagogy that is as inclusive as possible?

STEM may have started as a way to define and combine the individual disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but it has grown to be an integrated group of subjects that includes a lot: multiple academic content, a way of learning that content, and how they all relate together. STEM is rooted in practicality: problem solving, critical thinking and workforce readiness.  As an integrated pedagogy, it seems only natural that it overlaps with other content. The content many call for is the arts. So, what does “the arts” include and how does including them benefit STEM education?

The arts include visual art, music, dance, drama and even physical education. The use of language arts for communication so that students can present what is learned or even promote or market their solutions falls under this umbrella as well. Some of this content may be already there and implied. It is a good idea to specify, so that it is not ignored. Along with all of that, understanding history and the place of innovation is also relevant. The idea of STEAM is to use the arts deliberately as a tool for depth and understanding that may relate to students’ current or past experiences and strengths. Good teachers may do this, perhaps without realizing it. Spelling it out in a curriculum or giving it a name, STEAM, gives credibility and definition to this pedagogy, so that teachers, administrators, students and parents can understand.

To address one of the main criticisms of STEAM, understand that including the arts in STEM is not teaching arts content per se. It should not be confused with arts classes and it is not a call to replace them.  Through STEAM, a teacher may use physical experience, such as dance, to give students an opportunity to understand how molecules move and change.  Music can be used to replicate patterns and so their importance to math and science seen and experienced in less abstract ways. Listening to music, students can hear the patterns, both melodic and rhythmic. The visual arts offer opportunity to understand and develop aesthetic skills while students work through a design challenge using the engineering design process: the use of light and color, shapes and perspective.

Benefits of adding the arts to STEM:

  • Support for STEM content understanding from varying perspectives.
  • Enrich and enhance student experience giving self-efficacy so students can better engage in a rigorous STEM lesson.
    • Using the arts to take a risk and embracing unconventional ideas or experiences.
  • Using the arts as a ‘hook” results in a more diverse student base to study STEM subjects.
    • This includes learning how to discern beauty (yes, evaluate 'things' and works of art from an aesthetic perspective)
    • Use emotion for positive impact in solving problems.
  • Adding the arts helps students connect STEM skills to a larger variety of STEM subjects and STEM jobs such as fashion design and culinary arts.
    • Using the arts as a communication tool and demonstration of knowledge (i.e. a video, mosaic, newsletter, etc.)

Arts opportunities reach out to more students who may not engage immediately in STEM subjects benefitting overall engagement and participation in STEM subjects. The arts enhance these STEM attributes:

  • Understand how to take risk and accept failure as a process
  •  Improves tenacity and persistence
  • Opportunities for creativity
  • Opportunities to explore innovative ideas
  • Ability to evaluate and understand aesthetic value
  • Collaboration and teamwork

Perhaps it is my perspective as an artist, or former artist, that won’t allow me to not include the arts. I feel passion for students to learn through inclusive experiences that don’t allow for leaving anyone out. My passion comes from my life experience in both teaching music and teaching STEAM. I have seen it work. I see the connections happen and students’ eyes light up from their own discovery. Experiencing the connections of science and art is powerful. It’s there and as teachers, we must use all the tools in the toolbox for students to gain depth and understanding. In the long run, making these connections allows them to be the masters of their own learning and discovery.

 This VIDEO about "What Letter Should We Add To STEM?" gives a perspective from many notables in both the education and STEM world.






What Are The Outliers of STEM?

Ruth Catchen

STEM Education is talked about everywhere these days. It is the panacea for all educational ills. Still, many don't even know what it is and assume that it is S.T.E.M., which in my mind is the individual disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. To me, these disciplines with the "periods" in the acronym mean the silos of study that have been around for many years. STEM was promoted to better education and achievement for students in the United States who have fallen behind in math and science. It was work-force driven. We need qualified people who know and are able to do. Nothing is ever simple, and as time passes and STEM education evolves, the idea of what this protocol is and should include transforms.

STEM described by those I consider to be "in the know" and cutting edge educators, is an integrated pedagogy. I have written and talked about this much and of course, by this time I assume most get it. STEM education must center itself on the engineering design process (EDP). Through the use of the EDP, students can solve a real world problem, hypothesize what will work, test it and redesign or try again. In doing this, math and science content  are central, and success is not just learning content but applying it. Trial and error rules. Students are on an inquiry based adventure. The outcomes are not predetermined or expected and you do not FAIL if you don't get the desired results. Instead failure is success - a learning experience.

STEM education provides an opportunity to explore, discover and use what you know to apply to something new. Embedded in STEM education is content from math and science. The "E" is so valuable as it is the exploratory part of STEM where math and science are used and applied. Technology is anything new that answers or meets a want or need.  Again this is another misunderstood aspect of STEM.  Many schools think they are doing STEM if they have computers and iPads for students and people to service those needs. To them that is the T! I view STEM as a integrated pedagogy so what does that mean? And what does it mean to be an "outlier" of STEM?

An integrated pedagogy such as STEM education can pretty much mean anything, or rather include anything. Realistically the silo approach to learning isn't very good. Students learn a lot of individual content which they don't relate to other things. The world just isn't like that. There may be more of a particular discipline in a specific job, but we are complete people serving other complete people. So, yes, a physician has to be a good diagnostician and understand how the body works. But he or she must also deal with an individual and each person is different. There may be some facts to the diagnostic process, but it is not cut and dry. Finesse is needed to be a good physician. (Just a disclaimer that Medicine per se is not usually considered a STEM profession). The same for engineers. Each may use the specifics of their discipline but need to integrate other aspects of knowledge and communication. Collaboration is a part of the iterative process. Trial and error are key. The ability to apply knowledge reigns.

So, then what are the Outliers of STEMWhat else do you need to know and be able to do? Design and communication are obvious components to a STEM education. Thinking outside the box and having the ability to focus and persist even in light of failure are imbedded in any STEM job. The big question is: What are the other disciplines to include in the already integrated protocol of STEM? What are the outliers?  Do we add the "A" for the arts?  How about the other humanities and reading, writing and communicating? You can't do STEM without these. STEM education was created to improve the rigor and performance of students in the US in math and science where they were falling woefully behind. Was it intended to be a protocol for all learning? Or is it impossible to separate it all?

The devotees to the STEM disciplines get gnarly about adding other things and blurring the lines, at least some of them do. At the same time, to attract others to STEM, maintain their interest and offer additional opportunities for depth in learning, we need to add these other things. We need a variety of means to serve the goals. These components are the outliers of STEM but a valuable and viable part of the structure that makes STEM whole.

Here's a short video on what letter education notables think should be added to STEM:(click STEM!)