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Progressive schools stretch STEAM

Spring conferences will show educators new ways to blend arts and sciences
Speakers at upcoming conferences (clockwise from top left): Rochelle Gutierrez will speak at NCTM about the next generation mathematics for all; Lisa Nyberg will speak at NSTA about giving students more ownership of their education; Deborah Gaston and  Andrea Kantrowitz will speak at NAEA about adding arts to the sciences.
Speakers at upcoming conferences (clockwise from top left): Rochelle Gutierrez will speak at NCTM about the next generation mathematics for all; Lisa Nyberg will speak at NSTA about giving students more ownership of their education; Deborah Gaston and Andrea Kantrowitz will speak at NAEA about adding arts to the sciences.

Every spring, students in Michael Nocella’s chemistry class at Niles West High School in Illinois design a hot air balloon.

But they set goals beyond carrying the most passengers or flying the farthest. Students work in groups to create a balloon that meets a societal or environmental need, such as fuel efficiency.

Weaving this kind of engineering lesson into the project offers students a kind of freedom—transforming a potentially rote exercise into a chance to ask questions and affect results, says Nocella, whose school is part of Township High School District 219 in Skokie.

Instead of a scripted session, students have a hand in designing instruction in which there are no right or wrong answers. The students pick two “lab managers” who facilitate the planning and implementation of the assigned experiment, such as “design a solar panel that provides the most charge in the least amount of time”

The collaboration and problem-solving students learn are crucial life skills, Nocella says.

“Although there is a direction and goal provided,” Nocella says, “the students have to propose and select appropriate procedures, variables and data collection techniques, and assess what is evidence that relates to the task at hand.”

At three annual conferences this spring—the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), the National Art Education Association (NAEA) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)—experts and educators will offer guidance in developing STEAM instruction across a range a subjects and projects.

At the three conferences, educators and attendees will examine the subjects that comprise STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Groups such as NASA and the National Math + Science Initiative, a public-private partnership which champions embodied learning, such as learning to count while jumping rope, believe such blended learning in K12 is crucial to master success in the future workforce.


Self-analysis leads to innovation

To give students more ownership of their education, teachers need to ask students more open-ended questions that don’t produce rote answers, says Lisa Nyberg, a former elementary school teacher who is now a professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at California State University, Fresno.

Educators should push K12 students to analyze their ideas and support these concepts with careful analysis. This process helps students become more innovative thinkers, she says.

Such learning is a main theme at this year’s NSTA conference in San Francisco in April.

The first step to creating this kind of instruction environment is letting instructors experience this kind of learning themselves, she says. Many teachers grew up in a test-focused world and don’t know how to set up classrooms where learning can be open-ended, Nyberg says.

Nyberg’s session, “The Power of Questioning: Guiding Student Investigations,” is based on her book of the same title. She and co-author Julie McGough will lead an investigation of buoyancy. Exploring the concept will allow attendees to experience a self-guided lesson on their own, she says.

Teachers need to explore such an experience as a learner before incorporating it into their classroom as a teacher, she adds.

Nocella, innovator of the balloon experiment, will speak during a group session titled “Integrating Engineering Practices into a Whole-Class Inquiry Challenge.” He will show how students can be prompted to guide themselves through design assignments and the results they have produced.


Math covers social issues

Session leaders at NCTM, also in April, hope to push math teachers out of their comfort zone of numbers and equations. They want educators to experiment with techniques that bring creative thinking to math class.

For example, the connection between art and math—the ‘A’ and ‘M’ in STEAM—is a long-standing relationship. (Think of the geometry in a Piet Mondrian painting. Or the use of symmetry in a piece by Sol Lewitt, an artist linked to conceptual art and minimalism) NCTM has pushed its members to help students see the connection between the arts and math, and the conference will stress STEAM in one of its strands, “Next Generation Mathematics for ALL.”

Additionally, attendees will be encouraged to look at other disciplines that can be taught through math. For example, mathematics can be used to introduce social issues, says University of Illinois associate professor Rochelle Gutiérrez, who works in the department of curriculum and instruction. She points to materials for teachers interested in learning how to weave more than equations into math classes, including “Rethinking Mathematics: Teaching Social Justice by the Numbers.”

Students can examine the cost—and numbers—around war. Teachers can use topics that range from unemployment to living wages, and could touch on poverty, the middle class and income inequality all through the use of mathematics.

In the session “Beyond Relevance & Real World: Stronger Strategies for Student Engagement,” teachers will learn new ways to grab students’ attention, such as asking them to make predictions and debate the outcomes, says speaker Dan Meyer, the chief academic officer for the free online math site Desmos. “Then you engage the skill of argumentation, where you construct an answer and have multiple answers that could be correct,” he says.


Creative side of science

Turning the tables on traditional styles of teaching is also a theme of the NAEA conference this month.

Andrea Kantrowitz, an assistant professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, encourages educators to add drawing to chemistry class—such as by having students sketch a chemical reaction. And she will show examples of collaboration between art and science teachers during her session “Drawing the Visible and Invisible in Art and Science”

“Scientists are highly creative,” she says. “And there’s been research that shows that children who are high spatial thinkers go on to achieve more in STEM disciplines.”

Putting art on equal footing with math and science is one of Deborah Gaston’s missions. She’s been researching ways art can be blended into STEM subjects—even, for example, by showing students that the scientific process is itself a creative act.

Gaston, director of education for the National Museum of Women in the Arts, will co-lead a session “Leading the Way to Effective Practices in STEAM Teaching and Learning.” She plans to show educators how to combine art and science, and how to achieve better educational results in both by letting the creative process put students’ imaginations to work.

In English and humanities classes, students often produce multiple drafts of their assignments—a key part of the creative process. Artists also revise their work and, Gaston says, scientists do the same thing—they just use the word “experiments” to describe multiple attempts.

“Learning how to tell this information in a new format helps anchor experimentation and presentation,” she says. “This really is the intersection of art and science.”

Conference schedule

NAEA: March 17-19, Chicago,

NSTA: March 31-April 3, Nashville,

NCTM: April 13-15, San Francisco,

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Lauren Barack is a technology writer based in New York City.