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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Education Express Should Be Full STEAM Ahead

First appeared on Blogcritics.

As a new school year begins, it is time to get back to work in classrooms all across America. In many schools, this will mean cracking open textbooks, listening to lectures, and learning ostensibly the same way you and I learned and our parents and grandparents did years ago.

While many of us still believe that we got a solid education, there are things happening now which have changed the learning environment considerably. Many classrooms have SMART Boards or SMART Tables; there are hand-held devices being used by students and teachers, and there is connectivity to the world that could never have been dreamt of before. With so much readily available content and tools at our fingertips, there must be gravitation away from chalk and blackboard, away from books and lecture, towards a new educational environment, and many schools and their teachers are already going there.

steam -claremont graduate universityThere are some very exciting ideas out there, some revolutionary in scope that can change the face of education, and some state and district leaders are starting to take notice of them. We have heard a good deal about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) in schools, and that has gained traction in recent years as something to bolster student learning in those key areas. If the Common Core State Standards are meant to get kids ready for college and the workforce, STEM seems to be one of the best ways to go to embrace that.

There is an even better alternative currently getting attention across the country known as STEAM. The equation often used is STEM + Arts = STEAM. The concept is taking all the great ideas that have gone into STEM education and adding a strong presence of the arts to manifest an even higher threshold for accomplishment. STEAM is a framework for teaching across curriculum, allowing students to call on different individual strengths to accomplish tasks of varying complexity that would have never been possible in a regular classroom environment.

Georgette Yakman, a founding researcher for STEAM, says that it is “Learning that is representative of the whole world.” By fusing the arts (social, manual, physical, and fine arts) with STEM we are allowing students to get in touch with a wide array of options to accomplish a task. She explains how Science is the study of the natural world; Technology is all that industry has produced up to now; Engineering is the design and creation of things, and Math is the “basic language” that allows us to measure and calculate. By adding Art to the mix, we bring in an aesthetic sensibility that not only helps realize the vision of what we are learning but also enables an appreciation of the beauty and craft that has made everything come together.

steam pyramid - steameduIn every class you have diversity of learning styles, so it very possible if you have 24 students in a room that they are each hearing something differently, the fundamental reason why lecturing is not the best teaching practice. Also, if a student is sitting in a desk copying notes or diagrams from the board, he or she is merely transferring information, hardly a good way to encourage understanding and retention. That is why kids forget what they have been taught year after year and need to be taught it again – they never really learned it.

STEAM allows for an array of experiences that involve students in meaningful, hands-on ways. We keep hearing that CCSS push for classrooms to be student centered, moving the teacher away from being the “sage on the stage” and more of an observer, facilitator, and guide. In a STEAM world the students are taking charge of their assignments and using their diverse skills to get the job done. Let’s say a teacher has asked students to design and plan to build something, and one group decides to build a suspension bridge. In a STEM classroom, that could involve students in that group using their diverse skills to advance the assignment. One student could determine how the nature of the location of the structure will affect their efforts (science), another what tools, machines, and materials will be used (technology), another how the bridge will be designed (engineering), and another what the height, length, and width will be (math). In a STEAM class they will go one step further – the students will then work together to actually build a scale version of that bridge.
Tailleur-de-pierre_mainThe essence of STEAM has been around for a long time. French photographer Charles Nègre (1820–1880) seemed eager to embrace the as of yet unnamed framework when he wrote, “Where science ends, art begins.” He was fascinated with photography as an art, capturing other aspects of creativity and work combined in the pictures he took. He understood that art and all kinds of creativity took effort in and of itself to accomplish, but it was also representative of other work that needs to done to better the world.

The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has been a major advocate of STEAM, and educators across the country are starting to hop aboard the STEAM express. The philosophy behind STEAM is very simple – the very things that make STEM programs attractive and their graduates ideal future employees are only enhanced by the injection of the arts into the mix. Innovation and creativity associated with the arts are “essential qualities” that will make those students highly valued employees in the future. They will not just think outside of the box, they will design and build a new one.

STEAM programs are slowly catching on and being implemented around the country. As STEAM programs continue to multiply, expect to see and hear more about them (only a few years ago the general public had never heard the words “Common Core”). Do a little research and see why STEAM is one of the best ways to go if we want to engage children, make the classroom experience truly hands-on and meaningful, and prepare students to think, learn, and retain skills necessary to succeed in the real world. With a solid foundation such as the STEAM program provides, who knows how far our students can go.

Perhaps one day when you are riding on a plane that can fly you from New York to Sydney in three hours or taking that long awaited vacation to Mars on a luxury spaceship, your vehicle will have been designed by scientists and engineers who had a STEAM education. Isn’t that what we want for our children – to reach for the stars and beyond?

  Photo credits: Claremont graduate university, steamedu.com, stateimpact.npr.org

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