Recognizing the A in STEM Education

We live in a world where you can’t understand science without technology, which couches most of if its research and development in engineering, which you can’t create without an understanding of the arts and mathematics.

I came to this realization while studying the common factors of teaching and learning across the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and math. These fields can be intimidating to some students and traditionally do not attract many minorities or women. Many of those who do decide to pursue STEM careers do so without the important knowledge and skills that come from studying the arts.

Social, fine, manual, physical, and liberal arts actually expand on and influence the traditional STEM fields of study. For example,

  • Language arts is a means to share ideas, life experiences, and perspectives.
  • Manual and physical arts influence such areas as ergonomics.
  • Fine and musical arts reflect society’s values and directions in the past and present.
  • Social and liberal arts are a context for studying attitudes, ethics, and customs.

All of this comes together in the STEAM framework, which is based on this simple definition: Science and Technology, interpreted through Engineering and the Arts, all based in Mathematical elements. The goal of STEAM is to teach students how to better learn and apply new knowledge from a multidisciplinary, reality-based perspective.

The Framework

Education should more naturally reflect the world it teaches about. STEAM education strives for functional literacy— an ability to transfer knowledge with higher-order thinking between disciplines—and a FUNctional literacy—an ability to learn about and keep up with the modern world and to affect it through individual passions and skills. STEAM incorporates non-core classes into the STEM-based curriculum to stress the common linkages among all fields of study.

The STEAM framework revolves around using universal thematic units such as ergonomics, nutrition and health, transportation, communication, and power and energy to show the cross-over applications of how the knowledge from core classes are applied in context.

STEAM is fully adaptable by every administrator, guidance counselor, teacher, and student throughout the process. It is designed this way so that within the structure of a traditional school system, students have a venue in which to explore careers based on learning more about their individual interests, talents, and limitations—academically, physically, and socially. Within each program, education leaders and educators work together to adapt and expand their own curriculum.

STEAM in Action

Ideally STEAM uses a thematic unit taught by multiple discipline-based teachers; each teacher plans lessons around the identified theme and helps students make connections to the discipline’s benchmarks and standards through projects. As they work on a common theme across the curriculum, students develop a much better understanding about the common elements among topics and disciplines.

For example, the STEAM thematic unit Around the World in Many Ways teaches students about transportation systems well beyond types of vehicles; it includes transportation concepts such as weather patterns and wireless technology. The topic is broad, and each content teacher’s students contribute different parts to the project.

In the science class, students explore the inputs, outputs, and impacts (by-products) of transportation systems. In technology, students focus on what kinds of technology have been and need to be developed to promote transportation. The engineering focus is on the inventions and goals of the industry.

The arts teachers—including language arts, liberal arts, and fine and musical arts—address the societal expectations of systems, including aesthetic, auditory, ethical, and personal functions within societies. The math teachers explore the principles and equations that define how and why things work.

For a unit on ship building, students across the curriculum could study

  • The science of water, structural materials and buoyance factors, and geography.
  • The technology of machines, concepts and skills that allow for construction, production, transportation, communication, and power.
  • The engineering of planning and design.
  • The mathematics needed to visualize and develop ships.
  • The physical, manual, fine, and liberal arts concepts used in ship building, including history and politics.
  • The language arts to research, convey, and report all this knowledge.

This integration of fields is the most important element of the STEAM framework.

That’s not to say that the individual “silo” disciplines should not be taught. The discrete topics of science, technology, engineering, arts, and math should be covered at focus levels—where individual subjects are the primary topic of focus. Specific content areas should be studied in detail.

Career Exploration and Community

STEAM ensures all students have a common knowledge of all the fields of study, how they relate to each other, and how they can build a career around one or more of those areas. Through exploratory real-life problem solving, students have an arena in which to try out different aspects of different types of careers to help them make important decisions about their futures. Along the way they learn much-needed team and workplace skills.

For example, the STEAM unit What’s Your Point? helps students explore their talents and interests and identify opportunities to make a difference in the world. Through individual and group projects, they learn to fit productively into a larger framework. They are exposed to a large range of skill sets and career choices through projects that include research and development. They evaluate local, regional, state, national, and international career path opportunities and developments in historical, current, and potential contexts.

Within the structure of the STEAM program is the concept of community. STEAM programs can encourage students to play a more active part in their community and look for ways to benefit from and support their local areas. Businesses typically have an interest in fostering academic growth and forging partnerships with the schools. They can provide career education, hands-on experience within a business, as well as funding and curriculum resources.

The STEAM framework offers an adaptable structure that can foster the growth and development of academic programs in conjunction with their communities. For example, last year, the minister of education in South Korea announced that all K–12 schools in South Korea would adopt the STEAM framework. Their school systems and culture are very different from those in the United States and in many ways are even more structured, yet they are adapting and expanding on the concept to fit their needs.

The ultimate goal of STEAM is to help every student learn and grow and become part of a global village. This makes classrooms more naturally inclusive without adding additional work for the educational team. All students learn from each other as they apply the new knowledge they gained from a multi-discipline, reality-based standpoint.

Today’s emphasis on STEM has marginalized the arts to some extent. In public education, only language arts and social studies are still given prime status outside the STEM areas. To me this is a tragedy, because ignoring the arts as vital to education eliminates many ways for students to achieve contextual understanding.

Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, August 2012