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STEAM arts

Putting the “A” in STEAM education this school year

While there are many ways to integrate STEM into the classroom, it is important to emphasize the arts – the “A” in STEAM education.

As more students head back to school, we will continue to hear about how educators can successfully incorporate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education into curriculums from as early as Kindergarten. Whether it’s providing students with hands-on robotics tools where they can learn to code, program and design on their own, or using more in-class devices like Google Chromebooks that familiarize students with technology and problem-solving skills, there are many ways to integrate STEM into the classroom.

And no wonder: having a thorough understanding of STEM subjects is a vital component for success in the future workplace; reports reveal that nearly half of U.S. jobs could be automated in the next 20 years, so tomorrow’s generation of employees must be acquainted with the technologies and new job functions that will exist when they enter the workforce.

However, as we put our efforts on fine-tuning these technical skills, we often lose sight of creativity.

To keep creativity at the forefront of the educational spectrum, while also fostering “hard skills” like STEM, it is important to emphasize the arts–the “A” in STEAM education. Whether students have an affinity for the arts or not, incorporating elements of creativity into STEM education has undeniable benefits, including making STEM more approachable and understandable.

In fact, there is scientific evidence of a positive correlation between music and spatial intelligence–a vital skill for solving math problems; it all comes full circle.

Let’s examine why the arts are such an important component to STEM curriculum:

Because It Allows for Learning by Design

There are many different ways to incorporate “learning by design” into the classroom, but one specific way that provides a hands-on, holistic education experience is the method of Project Based Learning (PBL). PBL provides students with responsibility for an assignment from top to bottom, holding them accountable for solving a real-world issue through their own process of trial-and-error, making it an interesting way to integrate STEAM education into the curriculum.

PBL tasks students with making independent decisions about what they want to create, why they’re going to create it, and how. At the end of the process, students publicly present their project, prompting them to both develop a thorough understanding of it and to build something that they’re proud of from the ground-up. The overarching goal of PBL is to foster critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

For teachers, creating a PBL lesson is not easy–there are many moving parts and it can be difficult to streamline them all into understandable, actionable assignments for an entire class. However, PBL and STEAM education go hand-in hand.

For instance, teachers can have the class design a futuristic device like a robot; this type of project hit all facets of the STEAM model –

“S” for scientifically figuring out the electrical components required to make the robot function

“T” for technologically determining how to connect the robot to the Internet to make it move

“E” for engineering the pieces into an actual robot

“A” for designing how it looks, and

“M” for mathematically calculating and coding to get it to move

This is an example of a hands-on, physical project that addresses a complex issue (i.e., create a futuristic technology) and encourages students to do all the legwork in a way that’s innovative, collaborative and rewarding.

(Next page: 2 more reasons to focus on STEAM and not just STEM)

Because It Creates a Well-Rounded Student
According to Research in the Arts (RAND), to develop students that are well-equipped for the future, educators and parents must nurture “soft skills” like creativity, persistence, communication and collaboration. Even in Silicon Valley, where companies seek top talent that specialize in various STEM skills, there’s a significant emphasis on attaining applicants who are also proficient writers, bring creative ideas to the table, communicate professionally and are team players.

Just look at Google’s ideal candidate. According to Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, in addition to “general cognitive ability,” they want applicants who display “emergent leadership: the idea there being that when you see a problem, you step in and try to address it. Then you step out when you’re no longer needed.” Bock also mentions the importance of being a cultural fit and being able to admit when you’re wrong. In today’s modern workforce, it’s no longer sufficient for computer scientists and engineers to sit behind a computer all day – collaboration with team members is key for success.

In order for today’s younger generations to obtain this type of balance, it’s vital for them to have a well-rounded academic experience in school. The “A” in STEAM doesn’t strictly have to be the arts in this sense–whether it’s joining a sports team, trying their hand at mock trial, or volunteering for community service, extracurricular activities will add another layer to students’ already-vigorous academic work, helping to mold them into ideal job candidates for the future.

Because It Allows for Greater Student Satisfaction

Research shows that just 38 percent of students enjoy learning STEM subjects, so by implanting the arts into the model, the odds increase that more will take interest–and the more interested they are, the better they will perform.

At Boston Arts Academy (BAA), a student who’s a dance major created an “electroluminescent costume” that she designed on her own from start-to-finish using modeling software and a 3D printer. BAA students and teachers alike appreciate the way STEAM education is infused into the school’s learning style, as it allows students to gain skills like electrical engineering, industrial design and architecture through hands-on experiences with modern technologies.

At the same time, the work excites them because they’re building something for an area they’re passionate about.

As educators increasingly use technology to create customized lessons based on individual students’ needs and learning styles, it’s exciting to consider all of the unique ways that the arts will be incorporated into technical learning. Educators’ goals should be to develop a graduating class of well-rounded students who have the tools necessary to thrive in the future workforce, achieved through creative, applied ways in school.

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