Putting the “A” in STEAM

Injecting the arts into science, math, engineering and technology encourages students to think creatively and critically in traditional STEM subjects that, until the recent and widespread adoption of new standards, didn’t often encourage students to think outside the box.

The rising popularity of blended STEAM programs reflects a nationwide K12 push to develop the next generation of innovators.

Injecting the arts into science, math, engineering and technology encourages students to think creatively and critically in traditional STEM subjects that, until the recent and widespread adoption of new standards, didn’t often encourage students to think outside the box.

“The A—the arts—makes everything else make sense,” says Superintendent Greg Little of Mt. Airy City Schools in North Carolina. “If we ignore the arts side, the creative side, we lose the soul of what we’re doing and the why of what we’re doing.”

The arts also encourage students to take risks and tolerate ambiguity. In traditional painting, for instance, students can more comfortably test different images and designs—and, unlike in math, for instance, they aren’t expected to find right and wrong answers, says Tracie Costantino, dean of faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design, a pioneer in STEAM thinking.

Engineers must design technologically advanced products that also excite consumers aesthetically and are easy to use. And while many schools teach math in a rote manner, professional mathematicians have to be creative, she says.

“That’s putting the STEAM in STEM—the idea that these different disciplines share common ways of thinking,” Costantino says. “It helps students realize they have all these varied skills when they approach topics from multiple perspectives.”

iPhone ideals inspire students

The iPhone may best exemplify for students how science depends on art, says Gregory King, executive director of STEAM at the Tukwila School District outside Seattle.

“Art is embedded with any engineering practice,” he says. “If you take the iPhone, there is a tech component, but there’s also the design—someone who artistically thought of the aesthetic values.”

STEAM leaders learn to innovate

Teachers and principals in Florida’s Santa Rosa County School District this fall began training to become STEAM leaders by writing jingles about the Wright Brothers.

They also learned about the physics and history of flight as they worked in teams to develop products that improved upon Orville and Wilbur’s aeronautical inventions. Then they wrote the jingles for ads they devised to promote their products, says Karen Barber, director of federal programs for the 26,000-student district in the Florida Panhandle.

“We feel many students who may not excel in core content will excel when it comes to the arts,” she says. “We see art as a means of communication, collaboration and creation through music, dance and illustrations.”

The teachers—from 20 of the district’s 33 schools—will undergo another four PD sessions this year and also be coached in their classroom by outside STEAM specialists. These “STEAM leaders” will form PLCs at their home schools to show small groups of colleagues how to incorporate the arts into STEM instruction, Barber says.

New groups of teachers will undergo training over the next four school years, she adds.

“This is not just about raising achievement, it’s about economic development and attracting industry to our community so our students have well-paying jobs,” Barber says. “We want to create students who are adaptable learners no matter what the job market looks like when they graduate.”

The high-poverty district—which The New York Times in 2012 called the most diverse in the nation—has a high refugee population. Administrators see STEAM instruction as the best way to help these students find good jobs after graduation and escape poverty.

Therefore, Tukwila doesn’t relegate STEAM just to special programs or afterschool activities. It now drives everything in the curriculum, Superintendent Nancy Coogan says.

“There is an aesthetics-and-design component and a technology component to everything we’re doing,” Coogan says. “Instead of transitioning between subjects, they’re all crossing over.”

Middle school science students, for example, read a book titled Those Darn Squirrels, about a squirrel stealing nuts from a bird feeder. This inspired them to design, build and test their own squirrel-proof bird feeders.

In another project, high school ELL students wrote poems about how their families came to the United States. They then went to a recording studio to record their poems. They also learn how to edit their recordings and broadcast them.

Also at the high school, a performance of 20th Century Russian music by Seattle’s Rainier Symphony inspired lessons about the science of hearing and what happens when sound waves move through their ears.

In other grades, the district regularly brings in speakers who talk about their jobs in STEAM fields. Ultimately, the district hopes to create an employee pipeline for Boeing, Microsoft and the many other STEAM-oriented companies in the Seattle area, King says.

“Some people tend to separate art,” he says. “But art is in everything we do when we use our imaginations to solve problems we face in our communities.”

Higher ed partner

A brand new STEAM program in Detroit Public Schools offers committed students from a low-income school a chance at a free college education. Lawrence Technological University, a local four-year institution, launched the program this fall at Sampson Webber Leadership Academy, a K8 school, to drive students into the pipeline for STEM jobs in the region, says Alycia Meriweather, executive director of Detroit Public Schools’ Office of Science Education.

“The primary goal is help students to understand more rigorous content in ways that are approachable,” Meriweather says. “If kids choose to go into a STEAM-related field, that’s an added bonus. The end goal is making sure students are well-rounded.”

The university will help the district develop STEAM-focused after-school activities and summer camps. University faculty will guide teachers in creating engaging STEAM lessons to bring back to their classrooms.

The 50 students who join the program each year will receive a laptop loaded with engineering and design software. If the students participate through a Detroit high school, they will continue to get support from faculty—and they will be eligible for a Lawrence Technological University STEAM scholarship covering 50 percent of tuition at the university. Lawrence Tech has committed to try to raise the remaining tuition from other sources, Meriweather says.

But this is not the district’s first foray in STEAM. About three years ago, several teachers received Title I stipends and some extra training to start after school STEAM programs. A few teachers started school garden clubs where students learned about the science of growing plants and vegetables but also drew pictures and wrote poems that incorporated the data they collected.

Other teachers guided students in choreographing dance-like movements to demonstrate how bees pollinate plants, Meriweather says.

“The arts create multiple points of access to information and comprehension,” she says. If I’m learning math through art—I’ve created a song or a skit or a play—I’m going to be more likely to remember it. When you include the arts, you expand opportunities for kids to understand concepts in ways that make sense to them.”

NASCAR safety and style

Mt. Airy City Schools focuses its STEAM programs on arts-based products students can build, Superintendent Little says. The district has a partnership with NASCAR’s Richard Childress Racing team in which students study thermal dynamics to test and design clothing material for drivers. But the uniforms have to be more than scientifically engineered for fire protection and comfort.

“NASCAR drivers have to look good because they have all those sponsorships on them,” Little says. “For students, this really grounds everything they’re working on when they ask “‘When am I going to need to know this? When am I ever going to use it?’”

To get to this point, the district first had to revitalize its art programs, which had been scaled back by budget cuts in 2008. Little, however, found the funds to restore K5 arts instruction and revitalized the band for grades 6 through 12. STEAM instruction began in specialized courses but the hands-on, problem-solving approach has been blended into English, math and science. Also, arts instructors often co-teach classes with teachers of the core subjects.

The Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District on New York’s Long Island also focuses its budding STEAM program on teaching students to develop desirable and useful products, says Jill M. Gierasch, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Elementary school students designed a mock arcade with imaginary pinball machines. But before digging into the engineering side of making the games work, the students discussed how to make the machines attractive so people would want to play them. Revising their ideas is a key part of the exercise, Gierasch says.

“We no longer want to put kids in the position where they’re all making the same thing and it’s our design rather than their thoughts,” she says.

The 5,000-student district also recently replaced a retired art director with an art-and-tech director. Elementary students who studied the history of colonial New York built traditional instruments that they could actually play.

The district’s middle school students learned to compose music and record it digitally in a school lab. They also designed marketing materials—including band logos—for the music.

And in a project spearhead by an art and a technology teacher, students worked with the retailer Ikea to design durable and appealing furniture, she adds.

“We aren’t giving kids enough opportunities to make mistakes and then go back and revise and fix them and make something else,” she says. “That’s what an employer wants—somebody who’s able to think on their feet when something doesn’t work.”

Design drives DREAMS

A community survey a few years ago revealed that parents in the Cherokee County School District in north Georgia wanted more rigorous STEM and arts instruction. So administrators launched both STEM and fine arts academies in the six Title I elementary schools in the district. Though they’re separate programs, the lessons often cross over, says Superintendent Frank Petruzielo.

STEM students, for instance, learn in their fine arts classes how different kinds of lenses work by studying stage-lighting. Students in the fine arts academy learn to create camouflage clothing.

“You can’t wait until ninth grade to pique students’ interest in fine arts and STEM,” Petruzielo says. “That really has to start at the elementary level.”

The Encinitas Union School District in Southern California calls its STEAM program “DREAMS,” which stands for design, research, engineering, art, math and science. It’s based on “design-thinking”—a term similar to product development.

There’s no “T” because students in the K6 district already encounter technology in everything they do—for instance, Encinitas has a 1-to-1 iPad program, Superintendent Timothy Baird says. “In the traditional STEAM model, art is sort of an afterthought,” Baird says. “When you bring in design and design-thinking, art becomes relevant.”

The process starts with a problem students are inspired to solve and continues with brainstorming solutions. At the same time, teachers give research literacy lessons so students learn to evaluate the credibility of information.

Over the last three years, for example, fifth- and sixth-graders have been trying to reduce pollution that is carried to the ocean by stormwater runoff from the district’s buildings.

The students tested stormwater and worked with local scientists to develop a prevention plan. Along with the science, students also created an anti-littering ad campaign that they promoted in videos they made for YouTube and in commercials broadcast to classrooms.

“If you take the learning beyond the algorithms, you find art and math intersect in various places,” Baird says. “Learning should be fun and exciting—it should be something you can’t wait to do. That’s where we all started as educators, and somewhere along the line we made it boring.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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