Is STEAM just hot air?
Is STEAM just hot air?

I have been to a number of institutes and workshops on building an effective STEAM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math, program in schools.  Thus far, I have not left a professional development experience with a clear sense of what it means when a school labels itself, “a STEAM school.”  Some schools offer programs students complete after school, such as robotics.  Other schools run a STEAM fair or STEAM day during which students engage in fun activities related in peripheral ways to the school’s academic program.  Finally, some schools develop collaborative projects in which teachers from different disciplines design a learning experience that has a STEAM focus.  Most often, teachers will end up working in isolation on a program or project, but still think of it as fulfilling a STEAM function.  While these programs may meet identified student learning needs, I wonder whether they fulfill a vision of integrating skills and content from different disciplines so that students learn how to think critically, problem-find and problem-solve effectively, and think creatively across disciplines.

This is common language in the vision of many STEM or STEAM programs:

students will graduate STEM proficient and be prepared for post-secondary study and the 21st Century workforce

This statement is quite vague in my mind.  It usually means that students will take traditional courses in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The vision does not communicate the journey students will take to learn new ways of thinking so they’re ready to engage more complex problems.  It does not illustrate how the curriculum has been designed through the lens of STEM or STEAM.  Students continue taking subject-specific, end-of-course tests or high-stakes tests? Most students graduate without any experience organizing a performance-based assessment that requires them to analyze and synthesize ideas. Personally, I would like to see schools design more courageous visions that illuminates a path for learning through a STEAM lens, in which students use the knowledge and skills from STEAM disciplines in an integrated fashion.  A program that expects students to draw on diverse skills and knowledge to solve complex problems.

At ASCD 2014 (#ascd14), I attended a workshop sponsored by three educators from the Boston Arts Academy, an urban school in Boston.  The school’s mission is:

Boston Arts Academy, a pilot school within the Boston Public Schools, is charged with being a laboratory and a beacon for artistic and academic innovation. Boston Arts Academy prepares a diverse community of aspiring artist-scholars to be successful in their college or professional careers and to be engaged members of a democratic society.

While their mission is not a road map for how they will achieve their goal(s), it is aspirational and somewhat specific.  They want to prepare “artistic-scholars” and be a school that serves as a “beacon for artistic and academic innovation.”  Immediately it is clear who they serve (students) and what they value (art integrated with STEM).  In articulating their STEAM vision, the school lays out some specific guideposts used to educate students.

Since BAA was founded in 1998 we have been infusing the Arts into STEM subjects.  BAA combined our Science, Math and Engineering departments in 2010 to form an official STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) department. STEAM classes revolve around project-based learning, giving students the opportunity to research, experiment, revise, and try again. The artistic process guides our approach, as it relates closely to the engineering design process. Both rely on observation, analysis, modeling, and creating with ongoing experimentation and critique.

Their “infusion of art into STEM disciplines” implies an interest in integration.  The school also instituted a STEAM department which represented their commitment to integration of disciplines.

In their workshop, they shared a protocol and concept map, Figure 1, that teachers use to plan STEAM lessons or units of study.  The concept map illustrates BAA’s STEAM habits, eight behaviors around which they design STEAM lessons.

  • develop knowledge and skills
  • engage and persist
  • envision and invent
  • communicate and represent
  • observe and research
  • analyze and reflect
  • adapt and explore
  • collaborate and connect

In small groups, we were given an hour to plan a STEAM unit from a list of possibilities shown below in Figure 2.  For example, our small group designed a STEAM lesson for 6th grade students on ratios and proportions.  Figure 3 shows our notes from a brainstorming session.  The lesson would involve:

  • Science: applications of proportions in recipes for making bread for a soup kitchen
  • Technology: digital portfolios including reflecting on their work, communicating their project through a multimedia presentation, etc.
  • Engineering: designing and building a 3D model of a smaller object that students scale up to the larger object using their understanding of ratios and proporitions
  • Art: applications in music understanding and using time signatures (ratios), exploring how the music changes with different time signatures.
  • Math: using inquiry with manipulatives to build a deeper understanding of ratios and proportions.

Figure 2: STEAM Curriculum Ideas
Figure 2: STEAM Curriculum Ideas
Figure 3: Ratio and Proportion STEAM lesson
Figure 3: Ratio and Proportion STEAM lesson

This was an interesting and worthy activity because it mirrored what BAA faculty do to prepare their STEAM curricula.  It was easy to see this activity as a method schools could use to build an integrated STEAM curriculum in which faculty collaborate in the design process.  Learning experiences built using BAA’s eight STEAM habits are likely to be engaging for students.  Similar to project-based learning, integrated curriculum resulting from these designs are optimal ways to teach significant content, as well as 21st Century skills.

If we profess an interest in teaching to the “whole child,” then we must find ways to integrate the skills and knowledge from different disciplines into curricula that help students build the capacity to grapple with complex challenges.

STEAM Resources:

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