The case for creativity in STEAM

Creativity is not just being artistic or having new ideas
By: | October 23, 2019

Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of the book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.

Creativity is often misunderstood as simply a personal attribute—you are a creative person or you aren’t. Yet the word is crucial to ensure that STEAM programs that are more than a mashup of separate subjects. As many schools are working to incorporate STEM and STEAM into the classroom, design and creativity are the key to real and relevant experiences in the classroom.

Ask yourself:

  • Can science be creative?
  • Doesn’t math always have one right answer?
  • Aren’t basic facts and rote memorization the ways that science has always been taught?
  • Where will we find the time to do more in-depth projects that give students creative opportunities?
  • If students are doing more creative and personalized work, how will we assess it and meet learning objectives?
  • Do we know how to do this?

These questions can nag at our consciousness when attempting to change culture and context in classrooms. The promise of STEAM is not to add more to the school day, but to challenge the artificial separation of subjects that school traditionally delivers.

We know this traditional way of teaching STEM subjects works for some students, but for many others, it simply convinces them that there is something wrong with them, or that math is boring and science is just a bunch of facts to be memorized.

And yet, we know that students thrive when given the opportunity to do relevant, meaningful, and creative work. Together, we must push against paralyzing fear that there are too many variables and not enough time to figure it all out.

The promise of STEAM is not to add more to the school day, but to challenge the artificial separation of subjects that school traditionally delivers.

Making the case

  • The A in STEAM is not just about Art. The “A” in STEAM is incredibly important—it is the verb of the sentence, and at its heart is the creative process. It is understood that artists have a creative process, but less well understood that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians do as well. This is not about decorating science projects or coloring math worksheets, but a way to add design and design’s cousin, aesthetics, into classroom projects.
  • Design is a way to make thinking visible, connecting abstract pedagogy to the real experiences of children. Creativity is literally about making things, and the design process is a way to formalize understandings and turn creative thoughts into reality.
  • Next Generation Science Standards provide new directions for engineering practices. Again, design is the key to this. Design is the process of engineering. It provides a framework to solve problems, using the science, math, and technology that students learn. These standards are not “business as usual” for schools. Looking at them as simply a rearrangement of the existing curriculum ignores the revolutionary addition of engineering design to the expectations for the science curriculum.
  • Identifying new formative assessment strategies that strengthen the creative process in real-time as students work through a wider variety of design and engineering projects.
  • Inclusivity that ensures that technology and engineering experiences invite and support students who might not have the background or inclination to see themselves as engineers or scientists.
  • Equity in STEM areas for girls and other under-represented groups is not a matter of finding the young people who can do the work asked by the current curriculum, but to find new curricular areas and connections to the interesting and relevant STEM and STEAM opportunities found in the real world.
  • Leadership keeps the vision alive in the face of multiple distractions. Leadership in STEAM allows new ideas to flourish and provides support for educators to work out the details, while still moving the ball forward.

Creativity is about creating things, of course, but also about developing the mindset and confidence to trust yourself in the act of creation. We do kids a tremendous disservice when we over-plan every bit of work that they do. We need to give students time to step back and look at their work (work that they care about) and think about what to do next, just like a painter steps back and looks at their painting. This is not celebrating “failure”—a painter is not fixing their painting, and certainly not failing—but absorbing, reflecting, and continuing on.

The answer lies in creating science and math classes that adopt modern ways that mirror that way real scientists and mathematicians work. Students want and respond to science classes that are real and relevant, where they can engage in making things that make the world a better place, and in doing so, learn about the underlying laws of the world around them. This is a bold act of creativity that we must trust students to undertake.

Sylvia Martinez is a former aerospace engineer and video game designer, and the co-author of the book, Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called “the bible of the classroom maker movement.” She will be a featured speaker at DA’s FETC 2020.