How to successfully integrate the arts into STEM classrooms

Hands-on arts projects are increasingly being integrated into STEAM classrooms and curricula through collaborative learning spaces, makerspaces, robotics, multidisciplinary projects and virtual learning opportunities
By: | Issue: June 2020
May 18, 2020
Elementary schools in Fayette County, Kentucky, get visits from a STEM and arts learning-focused mobile classroom. The bus includes high-tech and low-tech tools used for activities covering design thinking and prototyping.Elementary schools in Fayette County, Kentucky, get visits from a STEM and arts learning-focused mobile classroom. The bus includes high-tech and low-tech tools used for activities covering design thinking and prototyping.

STEM schools and programs have increasingly become integral parts of public school offerings. The discovery process is an integral part of STEM, such as developing and testing a hypothesis in science experiments or investigating components needed for an engineering project. How can and does art fit in, and how is the “A” being added to become STEAM? Art too is based on discovery; it can help students to think creatively while engaged in STEM learning—both when school buildings are in operation and during COVID-19 related school closures.

Integrating the ‘A’

It’s easier to bring STEAM directly into an individual teacher’s classroom than to execute a larger-scale project in multiple schools, states Christine Liao in her 2016 article in the National Art Education Association’s Art Education Journal. In addition, research on sixth graders published in the Journal for Learning Through the Arts showed the integration of theater arts into language arts and math curricula resulted in significantly better performance in those subjects.

Fayette County Public Schools’ lending STEM library exemplifies how STEAM can be integrated by teachers from multiple disciplines. Josh Rayburn and Ashley Faulkner, STEM learning coaches for the Kentucky district, work with teachers to check out items and activities to build collaborative learning spaces in their classrooms. For example:
• With Ozobots, students learn how to code by creating artwork with markers and then program the robot to interact with their drawings.

• Music and technology are melded when they find and use conductive materials to play music with the Makey Makeys tools, or use Chrome Experiments to show movement and music.

• Using Sphero Bolt, students see pattern blocks, create mosaic art and turn it into a 3D environment.

• Through light sensors on Spheros, students create shapes through light and camera apertures.

• Virtual reality goggles enable students to look at a 3D version of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night Painting with YouTube 360.

Many of these STEM tools can also be accessed remotely for teachers to incorporate into their distance learning curricula.

In addition, a refitted bus, focused on STEM and arts learning for third graders, has traveled to all 37 Fayette County elementary schools. The mobile classroom includes constellation lighting on the roof, magnetic dry erase stations for design work, iPads and Chromebooks, robots, virtual reality headsets, and digital microscopes. Art concepts are woven into the activities, such as using design thinking and prototyping to create new baseball tees, or creating music with Chrome Music Lab.

Implementing virtual STEAM learning

When Fayette schools closed due to COVID-19, Rayburn says his district had a head start on virtual integration of the arts in learning, as teachers were already comfortable with the tech tools that the STEM learning coaches provide.

The STEM team has been conducting daily live learning sessions and one-on-one virtual resource coaching sessions with teachers. For instance, teachers are learning how to integrate white board and video responses with Flipgrid so students can show the products they have created, says Faulkner.

Rayburn points to one his own elementary school-aged children’s non-technology engineering assignment as an example. While schools are closed, the students read The Three Little Pigs and then figured out how to make the pigs’ house stronger by designing, building, failing and redesigning it from materials found at home (it was “blown down” by a hair dryer).

Forming STEAM partnerships

In New York, Mount Vernon City School District’s Mount Vernon STEAM Academy provides a problem-based learning approach that integrates all subject areas around the Grand Engineering Challenges from the National Academies of Engineering and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Students implement the 4 C’s (collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking) across subject disciplines to develop solutions to STEAM issues.

Promoting STEAM on state and federal levels

On a federal legislative level, the STEAM Caucus in the U.S. House of Representative is promoting STEAM while state-level initiatives include the North Dakota Council on the Arts’ STE[A]M Team Grant Program (nd.gov/arts/steam-team). The state program promotes collaborations between teachers and artists, including developing curriculum that melds arts into STEM and core curriculum subjects.

In West Virginia, the STEAM Power WV Grant Program funded over two dozen STEAM programs in the 2019-20 school year in K-12 schools, arts organizations and nonprofits. In the same state, an annual STEAMPOSIUM professional development conference (lshd.wvu.edu/about/news-events/steamposium) focuses on integrating STEAM experiential learning and projects into early childhood education.

The annual Tennessee STEAM Festival promotes interaction with scientists, engineers and artists throughout the state in schools, communities, businesses and universities.

Now in its second school year, the 1-to-1 school has partnered with companies to integrate STEM programs into project-based curricula, including Discovery Education and Adobe (Spark and Rush), says Deputy Superintendent of Schools Jeff Gorman. For districts considering launching a STEAM academy, Superintendent Kenneth R. Hamilton emphasizes how important the year of planning was in 2017-18, which involved teachers, administrators, experts and community members. Hiring two women to lead the school was a deliberate choice to increase interest by girls in STEM areas. Kids can’t be what they can’t see, Hamilton says.

As a Project Lead the Way school, the arts are incorporated into engineering and biomedical science subjects, says Liliian Serret-Morales, Mount Vernon STEAM Academy’s assistant principal of curriculum and instruction.

In TJ Pufahl’s Principle of Biomedical Science class, students created a life-sized drawing of the body as well as moving models in their study of diabetes, says Marybeth Rhodes, the academy’s humanities administrator. In an engineering course, students collaborated on visualizing and constructing a design on paper, before creating the designs on the computer.

Students in social studies teacher Ian Smith’s global history and geography classes used virtual reality to explore the Lascaux Caves’ cave art and hypothesize what life was like for ancient humans. During the COVID-19 closures, Smith’s students collaborated on a Minecraft world recreating the Abbasid capital city of Baghdad as it was during the Golden Age of Islam. And in Brian Pally’s global history freshmen unit, students created a visual representation of a favorite structure, idea, event or person using technology to showcase it or physically creating a drawing, painting, song or poem.

Reaching beyond the schools

After serving the Lancaster County School District in South Carolina for 15 years and collaborating on a robust STEAM program, David Platts is now promoting the arts in the community and in schools as the South Carolina Arts Commission’s executive director.

An initial 5-year U.S. Department of Education grant in 2005 for $650,000 enabled the Lancaster district to pursue professional development for arts integration in certain schools. They also partnered with the Kennedy Center to bring teaching artists to the district, a partnership that continues today. In the last couple years, the district moved to offer STEAM districtwide.

By giving teachers the opportunity to “think outside the box” to integrate the arts, Platts found in his time as Lancaster’s arts and science coordinator that teachers were turning their classrooms into improvised collaborative learning spaces. As an example, they created maker stations spread throughout the classroom to enable students to be creative in the moment with tools readily available.

Now working at the state level, Platts sees how the arts have grown in schools. Several decades ago, the ABC (Arts in Basic Curriculum) project started. Now there are 84 ABC sites in the state serving 170,000 students.

Faulkner of Fayette County says adding the arts is often not a big stretch. “If you are doing STEM, you are integrating the creativity of STEAM.”

Ariana Fine is DA’s newsletter editor.


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