It’s autumn in the Rockies and a season for debate and confrontation. In nature, the bugle call of the male elk woos mates and incites challengers for control of the harem. In politics, President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney return again and again to the West to assert their positions. Why fight it? This month, let’s take a look at the argument for adding an “A” to STEM to create STEAM and acknowledge the role of the arts in 21st century learning.

The acronym STEM already suffers from lack of clarity, so why add to the confusion by including the arts? To some, STEM implies an integration of several disciplines into a coherent tapestry. Others use STEM to refer to a group of disciplines that require similar cognitive skills associated with research and innovation. Readers need to ask themselves: Will adding the “A” to STEM create more confusion, dilute student preparation for a technically advanced work environment or improve innovation by acknowledging the creative act and processes more commonly associated with the arts?

Many scientists I’ve met integrate art into their work intentionally or unconsciously. Communicating scientific concepts and data requires creating visual and even sonic representations. I’ve “heard” energy pulses from space because scientists thought to convert electromagnetic radiation into sound. As a geology student, one of my great joys was illustrating maps of the terrain we researched. In my science classroom, I encouraged my students to draw and communicate their ideas visually as well as in writing or speech. Looking at human history, it appears to me that flourishing societies demonstrate excellence in the arts as well as STEM. The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance included revolutions in the arts as well as the sciences. Clearly, something about art brings out creativity and innovation in ways different from but complementary to the sciences.

In Boulder, Colo., associate professor in the College of Music and jazz saxophonist John Gunther recently received funding to explore ways to enhance the pedagogy of STEM through music and the arts. Specifically, Gunther will explore the “Science of Creativity” to better understand the creative process as it applies to the arts and the sciences. Working with students and faculty from an array of disciplines, Gunther hopes to learn where commonalities in creativity in the sciences and arts exist, develop ways to visually and sonically represent data and use technology to further the education of the arts and the sciences. His initiative will also take into account the growing body of research and applications in the neurosciences that allow us to map active areas of the brain during different physical and mental pursuits. Gunther is not alone in his interest in the relationship between STEM and music. Recently, Smithsonian magazine featured an article by author and Talking Heads musician David Byrne titled “How Do Our Brains Process Music?” Like Gunther, Byrne explores the application of neuroscience to understanding the brain and the importance of music in our lives and its role in human evolution.

Art Institute of Chicago professor of architecture and environmental design Linda Keane advocates for STEAM, emphasizing that the “A” for arts includes design, a process applied by professions in fields as diverse as urban planning and mechanical engineering. In addition to her professorial responsibilities, Keane co-directs NEXT.cc, a nonprofit organization dedicated to K-12 design and environmental education. According to Keane, the arts and design create meaningful relationships between the built and natural environments. Keane’s arguments for including the arts in STEM echo throughout a report by the National Governors Association. In May, the NGA released “New Engines for Growth: Five Roles for Arts, Culture and Design.” The document argues that including the arts in urban (and rural) development plans increases economic prosperity because the creative juices of artists feed innovation in STEM professions. In a way, the report represents an expansion of the NGA’s 2007 STEM Communication Toolkit by articulating the relationships between STEM and the arts and their combined effectiveness to drive economic development.

Doug Haller is the principal of Haller STEM Education Consulting. Haller is an education consultant specializing in strategic planning and market analysis to drive design, development and sales of niche education products for clients in the for-profit, nonprofit, and education and public outreach fields. His creative approach is based on years of practical experience as an educator, instructional designer and education consultant. Check out his blog, STEM Education: Inspire, Engage, Educate.

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3 Responses to “Full STEAM ahead: Arts, STEM and 21st century learning”

  1. Much agreed – S. Korea formally adopted the STEAM Education framework in all K-12 schools last year.

  2. Nancy Gosen says:

    Interesting example. A visit to the zoo would be a way for students to experience environmental design concepts and applied engineering.

  3. Alestra says:

    Also read "Outliers" by Gladwell.