Dancing parabola? Pantomiming volcanos? These are not science projects gone awry but examples of STEAM projects at work. STEAM is the fusion of “arts, creative, and self-aware studies with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to engage the whole child and foster high achievement in all areas,” as defined by STE[+a]M, the website created to share information about the blending of arts and sciences.
STEAM brings together what have long been thought of as polar opposites in the curriculum. However, the artistic process and the scientific method are more complimentary than we first might expect. Both are about exploration of ideas and possibilities. Both have a “process” and a “product” aspect to them. And both require students to engage in creative and critical thinking that supports collaborative learning.
With the interest in STEM curricula and career paths for students, many educators, artists, and scientists recognize the importance of blending the arts and sciences and believe that this can lead to richer student learning. STEAM is complimentary with 21st century skills, particularly the “4 Cs” of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication, and is gaining traction across the country with support from a wide range of organizations, including the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the U.S. Department of Education.
San Diego: A Real STEAM Experiment
In California, the San Diego Unified School District Visual and Performing Arts Department took on the challenge of developing STEAM curricula for their third through fifth grade teachers. Their work focused on teaching earth, life, and physical sciences along with dance, theater, and visual art. Dr. Linda Gohlke of San Diego Unified School District provided the following tips to get started in growing from STEM to STEAM.
- Identify the strengths of each art form and how these strengths contribute to student learning. Here are some examples that San Diego Unified recognized:
- Use movement and dance to model concepts that cannot be easily seen. The San Diego team utilized dance to teach fourth graders about electricity and electromagnets.
- Work with theater to develop oral language skills. Improvisation and pantomime were tapped in third grade to build astronomy vocabulary.
- Employ visual art to capture conceptual thinking. Fifth grade students were engaged in abstract and representational art to better understand atoms and molecules.
- Once the arts’ strengths have been identified, look for where the arts best intersect with the STEM concepts to be taught. Consider how the arts can help “unpack” the complexity of each concept. In San Diego, teachers ask the question, “What does the STEM concept have in common with, or is most like, something we do in the arts?” Look for the “best fit” between art form and STEM concept.
An example of this is the fourth grade dance and physical science curriculum. “Force” and “energy” are concepts taught in both subjects. Learning force and energy through dance makes the concepts more concrete, contributing to greater retention and understanding.
Additionally, look at your content standards. You may be surprised to see how the arts and sciences standards connect with each other. Arts and sciences concepts and vocabulary often overlap. For example, reading music involves fractions and theater set design requires measurement, geometric shapes, and spatial reasoning.
The arts and sciences have many different ways of working together in STEAM. First, they can be used together in instruction, as is happening in San Diego. Second, they can be powerful methods to interpret, present, and share STEM work. Students can draw, dramatize, dance, or even compose music as methods of sharing their learning in math and science. Imagine a science fair that is also an art show and a dance concert. And, lastly, the arts can serve as an assessment tool for STEM learning. Articulating their learning in a STEM subject through the arts, such as using geometric concepts in a drawing or demonstrating patterns in music, can be an engaging and powerful approach.
Don’t forget—you are not alone! There is a growing community of educators engaged in STEAM work. Websites like STEM to STEAM and STE[+a]M help connect and share ideas.