Imagine this: You’re a teacher at a school that’s been on board with STEM since the first little whispers about how it can provide unique learning experiences centered on 21st-century skills. You and the other teachers at your school encourage students to stretch their critical thinking skills and complete projects, but after a couple of years, the STEM program has lost its zest. It needs to grow and to work better for staff and students–but no one is quite sure what would add that extra spark.

That’s what led us to infuse arts into our science, technology, engineering and math program. A little more than three years ago, our new principal made the decision to transition our school from STEM to STEAM.

Related content: Don’t forget about the A in STEAM

We knew the “A” in STEAM was important for our students. When we did STEM lessons and activities, we found some kids felt blocked off creatively and felt that inspiration was hard to come by. When we added the “A” and transitioned from STEM to STEAM, things changed. We started teaching the arts standards alongside other content standards, and we found our spark.

Shy and quiet students came to the front of the class with their creativity. Teachers who felt stuck in the STEM box came alive with new ideas to integrate different art modalities. The “A” allows teachers to give students a different learning experience. We thought to ourselves: An artist goes through the same design process as an engineer, so why not open up this channel for students? We found that adding the “A” and transitioning from STEM to STEAM created interdisciplinary learning that facilitates content mastery and lends itself to whole child teaching.

I discovered over time that STEM learning was a way “in” with our elementary school children. They light up when we pose a problem or challenge that requires them to work together to solve problems using STEM skills, and you can see it on their faces when they walk into the STEAM Lab each day. Through these activities, they start to understand that any future is possible for them, regardless of what’s going on at home.

This transition from STEM to STEAM was a little nerve-wracking for some of our teachers. How would they integrate arts into the curriculum? Many schools across the nation are making this transition now, and it can be scary for them, too–but it doesn’t have to be.

By integrating technology that teachers are already familiar with, and using that technology as the vehicle for learning, teachers can become comfortable with the uncomfortable. As the innovation specialist, I get to play an important role for teachers providing the support they need to try new things in their classrooms and use technology effectively with students.

To begin, I modeled and coached teachers on effective STEAM integration strategies, including how to use a quick visual thinking strategy–an arts integration strategy with famous pieces of artwork, like a Jackson Pollock painting, when beginning a science lesson or math lesson. This quick strategy asks students to look at a piece of artwork. The teacher asks what they notice, such as colors, shapes, and technique, and makes connection between the artwork and the science content standards.

It might sound something like this: “How do you think Jackson Pollock made this painting? What type of force or motion would he have to use in order to create this artwork?” This integration strategy is just one example of how our teachers teach art standards alongside science or math standards during lessons throughout the week.

A big part of the new spark in our STEAM program has come from introducing coding and programming. I work with teachers to help them feel comfortable with that technology.

For instance, we use Sphero robots, which are app-enabled programmable robots that allow students to learn basic coding language using commands such as drive and draw. In addition, students can run programs using block coding and HTML text. All of this learning happens through the Sphero Edu app, which lets students and teachers connect, code, and learn from others around the world. This robot has allowed my teachers to integrate technology into content standards for other subjects and has increased student engagement and student interest in coding and programming.

To assist this process, I created an anchor chart for the classroom wall. Students can refer to it while they’re learning how to create block coding programs, which tell the robot what to do. Imagine a classroom of 8- and 9-year-olds, huddled on the floor with a diagram of the water cycle, figuring out, with coding commands, how to get a paint-dipped robot to follow the path of that diagram. When they succeed, the robot makes colorful trails along the floor.

Currently, I am working with a group of three teachers to integrate Xinabox modular electronics that use weather sensors. Working with high school engineering students next fall, our students in advanced 4th and 5th grade classes will launch a weather station satellite into Low Earth Orbit to gather data on regional microclimates.

We’ve also created partnerships that bring STEAM career professionals into our school to talk with students and help them envision their futures. Sometimes those partnerships can lead to even more: Our partnership with the Georgia Space Grant Consortium from Georgia Tech connected me with the Hines Family Foundation, which donated weather kits and to us and trained teachers on how to use them.

Nonprofits and community centers like this exist in just about every state and region. Seek them out and explore how you can work together.

So, what’s it all for? The transition from STEM to STEAM at our school has dramatically improved student outcomes.

On days when the entire school is engaged in STEAM, attendance goes up and behavior referrals go down. This past year, there was significant growth in every area of our science test scores, the first year ever that there were increases in every science domain. We also have seen more students attending magnet high schools after graduation. We’ve won state technology and digital competitions using programmable robots and 3D printing designs. And the transiency rate dropped–more students are staying at our school instead of withdrawing to go elsewhere.

We think families in our community see the value in the creative, cross-subject work we’re doing.

We are pushing our students further each year, and our STEAM culture still has room to grow.

About the Author:

Alana Davis is the innovation specialist at Mableton Elementary School in Cobb County, Ga. In 2017, she was the Georgia Elementary Science Teacher of the Year and has been involved in the CCSD Teacher Leader Academy and several STEAM Innovation Academies. In 2019, she was named a Sphero Hero, which recognizes pioneer teachers who use Sphero app-enabled robots and other educational tools to transform teaching and learning in their classrooms and beyond.


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