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‘STEAM’ education gains momentum in schools


More schools are climbing on board with STEAM education.

For years, educators have been told about the importance of STEM education—for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—in ensuring the nation’s competitiveness in a global economy.

But now, a new movement seeks to amend that acronym to “STEAM”—with an “A” for the arts.

Leading the charge is the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which maintains the website STEMtoSTEAM.org.

According to the website, the movement aims to include art and design in STEM policy decisions; encourage the integration of art and design in K-20 education; and influence employers to hire artists and designers to drive innovation.

“Design is increasingly becoming a key differentiator for technology startups and products,” the website states, and art and design “provide real solutions for our everyday lives, distinguish American products in a global marketplace, and create opportunity for economic growth.”

Integrating the arts into STEM education encourages students to develop critical thinking skills and innovative approaches to problem-solving, advocates say—while enhancing creative thinking and student engagement.

(Next page: Examples of STEAM education programs)

Examples of “STEAM education” are cropping up across the nation.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that the city’s 2013 Summer of Learning initiative will focus specifically on STEAM learning activities.

Emanuel’s announcement is part of an overall plan to boost the city’s education efforts. Those efforts include opening five “early college” STEM education schools, implementing a new arts education plan in the city’s public schools, a $1 million investment in 60 school learning gardens to link nutrition and science, and launching a program called College to Careers for City Colleges of Chicago students.

In Atlanta, the Drew Charter School includes a specific focus on “STEM to STEAM.” The K-8 school’s teaching methods include:

  • An interdisciplinary program integrating the five areas of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.
  • An inquiry-based instructional program with real-world context.
  • Emphasis on design and problem solving, leading to applications.

In 2012, the Georgia Charter Schools Associated named Drew Charter School the Georgia Charter School of the Year. The school has plans to begin building a new facility, with room for a freshman class, in early 2013.

An online petition seeks support for U.S. House Resolution 319, which was introduced in 2011 but not enacted and seeks to “encourage members of the House of Representatives to support the addition of art and design to [federally supported] STEM programming …, effectively turning STEM to STEAM.” As of press time, this petition had gathered nearly 2,300 signatures. RISD encourages visitors of the STEMtoSTEAM.org website to track the resolution’s status and sign the petition.

Sesame Street, currently in its 43rd season, has focused for years on STEM education, but this year the show has added the arts to its programming and upgraded its focus to STEAM education.

“The cornerstone of the curriculum remains the connection between the four main domains: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but the updated approach integrates the arts. This helps make learning STEM concepts relevant and enticing to young children by highlighting how artists use STEM knowledge to enhance their art or solve problems. It also provides context for the importance of STEM knowledge in careers in the arts,” according to a statement from the popular children’s television show.

“As STEM topics continue to be a critical area of a preschooler’s early education, it is important to allow children to explore these concepts through various channels, especially the arts,” said Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop. “Incorporating the arts into our STEM curriculum was an exciting and natural addition, as Sesame Street has always used music, visual, and performing arts as tools to educate and entertain children.”

Major companies and groups are picking up the cause as well.

Cultivating organizational creativity in an age of complexity,” a companion study to the 2010 IBM Global Chief Human Resource Officer Study, looks at why some organizations are better at innovating and adapting to change. According to the study, creative leadership is key; IBM researchers found that “creative leadership in action enables a wide range of product, process, and business model innovations.”

State of Create,” an April 2012 study from Adobe Systems (a maker of popular desktop publishing and creativity tools, such as Photoshop, InDesign, and Dreamweaver), took a look at how creativity is viewed in the workplace, at school, and at home.

Part of the study examines what it calls the “creativity gap,” noting that people spend just 25 percent of their time at work creating, and many report there is increasing pressure to be productive rather than creative at work.

When asked to rank whether they disagree or agree with certain statements, at least 76 percent of respondents from each country surveyed—the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France, and Japan—said they believe that creativity is key to driving economic growth.

STEMtoSTEAM.org links to a May 2011 President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities report, “Reinvesting in Arts Education: Winning America’s Future Through Creative Schools.” Based on 18 months of study, the report reviews the current state of arts education and includes a set of recommendations for federal, state, and local policy makers.

The report touches on neuroscience and how arts education affects the brain’s abilities and cognitive development. Findings include:

  • Music training is closely related to phonological awareness—one of the most important predictors of early reading skills.
  • Children who practiced a specific art form developed improved attention skills and improved general intelligence. Training their attention and focus also leads to improvement in other cognitive domains.
  • Arts integration techniques, which use multiple senses to repeat information, cause more information to be stored in long-term—as opposed to short-term—memory, and may actually change the structure of the neurons.

In 2010, Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools compared three arts integration-focused schools (AIMS) to three control schools over a three-year period.

The AIMS schools with the most minority and low-income students closed the reading gap by 14 percentage points and the math gap by 26 percentage points over a three-year period. In the control schools, the number of proficient students actually went down 4.5 percent.

Researchers also followed classroom teachers as they learned how to integrate the arts into their instruction. A large majority of those teachers (79 percent) said they “totally changed their teaching,” and 94 percent said that they developed “additional ways of teaching critical thinking skills.”

The report makes five recommendations:

  1. Build robust collaborations among different approaches to arts education.
  2. Develop the field of arts integration.
  3. Expand in-school opportunities for teaching artists.
  4. Utilize federal and state policies to reinforce the place of arts in K-12 education.
  5. Widen the focus of evidence gathering about arts education.

Many STEM-to-STEAM supporters note that arts education must be integrated into STEM teaching if today’s students are to succeed in workplaces that demand creative thinking, unique approaches to challenges, and artistic points of view.

ArtsEdge, from the Kennedy Center, offers resources for educators to integrate arts into their classroom instruction. The site features lessons, activities, and projects, along with multimedia such as games, audio and video clips, printables, and graphics.

Themes that help students connect arts to other education topics include acoustics and sound; earth, wind, and water; the Civil War; and plants and seasons.

For instance, a lesson on acoustics and sound teaches students about how the Fibonacci sequence relates to math concepts of pattern and music structure. Another lesson about weather and wind introduces students to the properties of air masses and unequal heating of the Earth as the force behind wind. Students create a dance to demonstrate that they understand weather patterns.

The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts and the Northrop Grumman Foundation partnered on a national Early Childhood STEM Learning Through the Arts initiative for preschool and kindergarten students, teachers, parents, and caregivers at 10 locations around the country. The initiative began in 2010 through a four-year, $1.15 million U.S. Department of Education grant.

“We believe our work could make a substantial difference in how teachers teach and how children learn,” said Terrence Jones, president and CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts, when the program first launched. “The high level of research involved in this program will allow us to prove the arts should be integral to STEM education for young children.”

The program uses performing-arts elements in school curriculum to teach STEM concepts and skills to children ages 3-5. It includes multi-session classroom residencies; professional development workshops for administrators, teachers, and specialists; and family involvement workshops for parents and caregivers.

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Laura Ascione

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