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STEAM: Adding art to STEM education

Innovation will be built on merging the arts and sciences
Meghan Reilly Michaud says art is no longer used only to teach students about culture.
Meghan Reilly Michaud says art is no longer used only to teach students about culture.

Today’s students encounter art in many aspects of everyday life. From the icons representing the applications on their smartphone to the paintings hung on the walls of a museum, the arts teach our students to interpret information. But art also instills skill sets for students pursuing any field of study.

These days, no discipline stands on its own. Visuals can simplify complex data in science in the same way that mathematics can structure appealing rhythmic patterns in music.

When combined with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, the skills learned through art allow for true innovation, or STEAM. Many institutions, corporations and individuals now recognize that 21st-century innovation will come from creativity enhanced by art and design in K20 education.

Learning without knowing it

STEAM enables schools to instill a collaborative culture, with lessons and courses that recognize individual course content often complements multiple areas of study. Students encounter this overlapping content often without recognizing the connections.

In mathematics, for example, students learn the geometric transformation of dilation. In an introductory visual arts course, students learn perspective. In science, students study the effect of light on pupil response in the eye. And in a history class, the way Renaissance artists viewed the world is examined.

It may not be obvious, but all these topics relate to a main idea of an item changing scale with proportion to the original dimensions, and the effect this idea has on different facets of our world. In establishing a connection between these ideas, the arts not only educate, but also engage students in their learning. Even without explicitly designing new curriculum, many teachers already use STEAM principles in their teaching.

Students recognize topic connections by using critical thinking skills taught through art. Critical thinking is part of the reflective process of creating an original work, whether it is a painting or a poem. Participating in a critique of that work allows student artists to think beyond aesthetics and engage in creative inquiry with peers and instructors. Students learn to recognize how others perceive, interpret and evaluate their work.

When students consider this interpretation as a part of the process of making, they develop a better understanding of how to communicate their ideas and utilize feedback. As a result, they take great pride in the work they create.

By way of example, Robea Patrowitcz and Charlotte Wilson, fine arts teachers in Andover, Mass., created a unit of study for fifth graders based on children’s book author and illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka, a visiting artist. The teachers used visual arts, English language arts and technology to build lessons that gave students an in depth intro to storyboarding.

(Krosoczka himself is no stranger to the impact of art education. His 2012 TED lecture, “How a Boy Became an Artist,” has more than 570,000 views. It’s not surprising that he is also an alumni of Rhode Island School of Design, which champions STEAM.)

Growing movement

Merging the arts with the sciences is an idea that, if you’ll pardon the expression, is gaining steam. Early in 2013, a bipartisan Congressional caucus was held in Washington, D.C., to discuss and implement STEAM education. The caucus now has more than 50 state representatives from across the nation.

The School of Educational Leadership at the University of San Diego has established a master’s degree in STEAM education. Even the 2013 season of Sesame Street engages its audience in a series of so-called STEAM segments led by the popular Elmo character, adding art to STEM topics to engage young viewers.

Educators are realizing that STEAM learning—throughout K20—is increasingly important in educating the student population to be ready for whatever college or career might bring. Art is no longer used only to teach students about culture; the arts are also proof that a culture is prepared for the future.

Meghan Reilly Michaud, a 2001 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is a tireless STEAM champion. She teaches fine arts at Andover High School in Massachusetts. Her petition in support of STEM to STEAM inititiatives can be seen at