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Opinion
Curriculum Opinion

There’s Something Missing From STEM Learning

By Susan Riley — October 02, 2017 4 min read
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The education field can always count on shifting priorities. Over the past 20 years, in an attempt to “fix” what many people dub a broken public school system, everyone from politicians to famous athletes to business moguls to education leaders has tried to find and repair the gaps in student achievement. But many educators are skeptical of new initiatives that come down the pike. Is a revamped approach really meant to help prepare children for the future, or is it just people outside of education sticking their noses where they don’t belong?

That certainly rings true in the STEM vs. STEAM argument of the past decade. In recent years, science, technology, engineering, and math have been at the center of our schools’ change fabric. These fields are desperate to fill jobs that didn’t exist before the 21st century. According to the 2016 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index, there were more than 230,000 additional STEM jobs and less than 31,000 additional graduates in these fields in 2014-15 alone. To help close that gap, President Barack Obama rolled out investments and initiatives to increase STEM education.

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As schools expanded into high-tech gadget hubs, many educators argued for the integration of arts into STEM learning to bring needed creativity to the learning process. Others pushed back for keeping the arts separate, saying that adding the arts to STEM subjects simply created more distraction. While the STEAM movement has gained momentum, educators are still divided on arts integration.

Many STEM-area teachers have been wary of what adding that “A” really means. Are the arts just looking for a piece of the money pie that was supposed to support much-needed training and materials for STEM teachers?

That is a valid question. As an artist and arts-integration specialist, I will be the first to admit that we arts educators advocate the arts as loudly as we can. But who can blame us? For so long, it has been almost impossible to get people to acknowledge that the arts are valuable in and of themselves.

We can't simply teach our content areas separately and expect that students will be able to integrate them after graduation."

But STEAM isn’t just an inclusion of the arts—it’s an educational approach to learning that uses the arts as an access point for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The practice of integrating the arts with STEM allows students to connect their learning in those critical areas with arts practices, elements, design principles, and standards.

At its core, STEM education drives instruction of its four areas of study through observation, inquiry, and problem-solving. Creativity is critical to these processes. Our 21st-century economy requires the ability to connect across content areas and create with ingenuity. NASA estimates that we can put humans on Mars within the next two decades. Are our students ready for that reality? Will those who one day make it to Mars be able to think not only critically but creatively when a problem arises with no known answer?

At its best, STEAM removes the limitations of pure orderly thinking and replaces them with wonder, critique, inquiry, and innovation. Students are able to think more deeply and ask non-Googleable questions.

The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which introduced formal language that recognized STEAM education, freed up funding for schools to use this approach. Now that states are more broadly recognizing the possibilities of STEAM, the question becomes: How do we best integrate the arts into the classroom?

True arts integration means connecting content areas through aligned standards. While creating artwork of the solar system or singing a song to memorize math facts can be engaging, it’s not authentic to the integration process. These kinds of projects don’t truly honor the arts for the intrinsic value they bring to the whole child.

Teachers must instead explicitly teach both STEM and arts content for their own sake to give students a solid foundation before allowing them to apply those skills together. We can’t simply teach our content areas separately and expect that students will be able to integrate them after graduation.

For example, students must understand both the basics of fractions and rhythmic structure if they are to successfully integrate musical composition and math equations. It’s not enough to teach fractions in math class and then teach note values in a music class. The true learning comes when students understand and apply musical notation as math.

What schools must stop doing is teaching the puzzle pieces and then never letting students put the puzzle together. Through arts integration, students are finally discovering and creating their own solutions, rather than waiting on the teacher to tell them how to arrive at an answer. That is why schools should intentionally work across standards to provide a deeper, richer opportunity for students to truly own their learning.

From my own work, I can tell you firsthand there are no right or wrong pathways. It’s not STEM vs. STEAM. It’s STEM and STEAM. I have seen the positive impact of providing students with opportunities that best meet their needs and make learning meaningful. We as educators are simply the facilitators of that process. Why wouldn’t we give students multiple channels to do so?

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Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as The ‘A’ in STEAM Completes the Puzzle

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