There is an interesting article in the recent edition of Harvard Education Letter, STEAM Not STICKERS, by Edward P. Clapp and Raquel Jimenez. The authors discuss the importance of looking for authentic and intellectually justifiable ways to integrate art into the STEM disciplines. They looked at a variety of STEAM (A for Arts) projects in various sources that promote integration of arts into STEM. What they discovered was that many of these projects or initiatives do a disservice to the arts. They see two “prevailing trends” from their research:
- STEM activities or initiatives that call themselves STEAM but are no more than decorating STEM projects and calling it art. Hence the STEM with Stickers Effect.
- STEM activities or initiatives that call themselves STEAM but are no more than arts and crafts projects that appear to blend a S, T, E, or M with A. Little learning of art or of the other discipline. Hence the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect.
From my experience at the Center for Teaching, working with a variety of schools on STEM or STEAM project development, I would strongly concur with what Clapp and Jimenez have discovered. There is very little authentic work going on to integrated the theory and practice of art in the theory and practice of the STEM disciplines.
Here are a few essential questions on my mind:
- How does the theory and practice of one field inform or enrich the theory and practice of another field?
- How do we help teachers develop the understanding and mindset to design curricula that integrates these disciplines?
- How do we build into the curricula we design the knowledge, skills, and understanding that teaches students how to associatively think across disciplines?
- How do we keep STEM or STEAM from becoming the next bandwagon to jump on and then jump off in a few years?
With regard to the last question, it won’t happen if we only design curricula for students that is either the STEM with Stickers Effect or the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect. We have to be creative and invent new ways of teaching and learning that use substantive and intellectually demanding knowledge and skills from all these disciplines.
STEAM curriculum could be based primarily on science concepts with art woven in (purple graphic). It could be any of a number of the following permutations (cap letter being the dominate discipline in the curriculum or project). Maybe the most ideal scenario is one in which knowledge and skills from all five disciplines are used “equally;” STEAM.
Regardless of the disciplines used to build the curriculum, the designer (teacher) needs to do justice to the knowledge and skills that serve as the foundation for the discipline. What we should aim for is the development of STEAM experiences that are authentic and that require students to use the knowledge and skills that an artist, scientist, engineer, or technology expert, or mathematician would use in his or her work.
At The Westminster Schools (@WestminsterATL) in Atlanta, GA, we have been engaging in these conversations over the past two years. Our K-12 teachers have formed a professional learning community across the disciplines. We call it our STEAM PLC. This is a group of 18-22 dedicated teachers representing these disciplines who are committed to figuring out how to design and implement STEAM curriculum in their classrooms. They meet one a week for the entire school year to discuss, share, and plan curriculum. Some of their STEAM work is implemented solo in their classrooms, while other projects are cross-disciplinary and collaborative. Each year, their work has culminated in a K-12 STEAM exhibit showcasing the projects that have come from different classrooms. The work of this PLC has energized the school community, students, teachers, and administrators, to think beyond single disciplines. We are starting to envision curriculum that incorporates the knowledge and skills of different disciplines into a more holistic framework. I wouldn’t say we have arrived, but I would say that we are making great strides to design curricula that is not STEM with Stickers Effect or the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect. (the slide show below shows some of the work from the 2015 exhibit)
Here are some of the curricular ideas built into our STEAM exhibit (for more information contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com)
- 1st grade bee project…science of bees, science of bee collapse syndrome, stories about bees, art projects built around studying bees, design thinking or maker activities like building a 3-D scale model of a bee.
- Geometry and art
- Architecture, 3-D printing, and design
- 3-D printing and sculpture
- Designing a logo for iSummit (event held on Westminster’s campus)
- Masks, art, and interactive display
- Science (ecosystems), water, and art installation on STREAM of Conscious
- Building a City, a 3-D design project in Middle School to build a city
- Geometry installation in Middle School to build a 3 x 3 cube using large blocks according to the instructions provided
If we want students to learn important knowledge and skills from different disciplines, along with 21st Century skills like critical and creative thinking, communication and collaboration, and use their understandings to solve complex problems we will have to think seriously about the type of curricula we design. STEM with Stickers Effect or the STEM Arts and Crafts Effect curricula might be fun to do but it’s entirely possible it will not leave students any better prepared to design creative solutions to problems like global warming, scarce water supplies, pollution problems across the globe, or barbarous treatment of our fellow humans.