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Full STEAM Ahead: How STEM Education Is Expanding

June 18, 2019

By: Kendall Hunt RPD with contributions from the writing team of By Design Science grades 1-8

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is crucial for our students’ success. STEM careers encompass a broad range of jobs in the physical, earth, and life sciences as well as computer science, mathematics, engineering, and health care. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in these disciplines will grow to more than 9 million between 2012 and 2022 (Stem 101: Intro to Tomorrow's Jobs, 2014).

Lately, STEM careers aren’t the only thing that’s growing—the name itself is getting an upgrade. Many scholars are advocating for STEAM instead of STEM, adding an “A” to the acronym to stand for arts and design.

According to Jennifer Gunn of Concordia University–Portland, some are hesitant to turn STEM into STEAM for fear that the addition will dilute the importance of technology and science. But she and many other educators argue that knowledge of the arts and humanities is necessary to use the information discovered through science. The learning strategies that the arts promote—high-level critical thinking and argumentative reasoning—are crucial for explaining and defending scientific work.

“Yes, we have an alarming STEM shortage in our country. That’s pretty undeniable,” says Gunn. “But every engineer who comes up with a new innovation practices far more than math, engineering, and technological prowess. They also use design-thinking, creativity, communication, and artistic skills to bring those innovations to fruition.”

In essence, by incorporating the arts and design into STEM, we’re just following the principles of something that we already know works: inquiry-based science. 

The idea behind incorporating inquiry-based science in the classroom is not to memorize or prove facts that other scientists have already discovered but, rather, to encourage new and innovative thinking. Traditional curriculum might have students looking for a definitive correct answer. However, when teaching with inquiry science, the process students use to get to an answer is more important because inquiry science relies on questions and student-driven investigation. It also relies on failure and the ability to see failure as an opportunity to learn and continue searching for a better solution.

All of these things sound exactly like a viewpoint based in the arts and humanities. After all, wasn’t it the earliest humanists and philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, who advocated for a questioning mind-set and critical, rational debate? Including arts and design with STEM education is a way to reinforce the idea that there isn’t just one “correct” answer. Scientific and technological innovation requires a broad outlook and a curious and questioning worldview, which is exactly what the arts can cultivate.

When looking for classroom STEAM ideas, think in terms of design-based activities that incorporate scientific and technological principles. Anything that requires students to imagine, design, and build their own creations can take a STEM activity to STEAM level. Concordia University–Portland has several excellent blogs with specific ideas, such as building a miniature Native American dwelling, designing and constructing a car, and creating a prosthetic leg. STEAM projects need not only be physical; videography and cinematography can be excellent ways to mix art, design, computer science, and technology.

A customized curriculum such as ByDesign Science offers the perfect way to engage students in STEAM activities because the unit materials can be customized and individualized. The open inquiry at the beginning of each ByDesign unit allows students to investigate any topic of interest that relates to that unit, helping them practice the questioning and research mind-set essential to STEAM. ByDesign also makes use of Student Science Journals, thus incorporating writing and language into science class. Most activities in the curriculum are guided inquiries, offering an initial question and minimal guidance while leaving students free to explore and structure their own investigations.

The arts and science can, indeed, coexist—and, like peanut butter and jelly, they’re even better together. It’s time we took the leap and added some STEAM to STEM!

How will you incorporate STEAM activities into your classroom this fall?