EPISODE 21: THE STORY OF

Georgia’s STEM/STEAM Initiative

with Meghan McFerrin

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I think the only certification that is required is one that teachers can give themselves, and that’s giving themselves permission to be creative, take some chances and try something new.

Jamie
Did you know that federal funds are now available to support STEAM through the Every Student Succeeds Act? I’m Jamie Hipp, and this is Teaching Trailblazers, a show about teachers, artists and leaders in arts integration and STEAM. On this episode, we’re joined by Meghan McFerrin, STEM/STEAM Program Specialist for the Georgia Department of Education. In this role, she provides arts integration and STEAM support to schools and districts throughout the state, and she previously worked in the school programs department at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It’s great to have you on the show, Meghan. Welcome and thank you for being with us this morning.

Meghan
Great. Thank you so much for having me!

Jamie
Sure. Now, The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM define STEAM as an educational approach to learning that uses science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue and critical thinking. The end results are students who take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persistent problem solving, embrace collaboration and work through the creative process. How does this definition compare to the Georgia Department of Education’s definition of STEAM?

Meghan
Great, I love your definition, and what I like most about it is that starts by describing it as an educational approach. Now Georgia, when we talk about STEAM that is so important, we talk about it as not being a what but a how. Your what is still typically your content standards. It’s a how, it’s an approach to teaching in a way to engage students. Um, in Georgia, I think what’s really unique is that STEAM is situated between both the curriculum and instruction side, but also the career-technical-agricultural-education side, which in most states is CTE but in Georgia it’s CTAE. So we also look at the local business and industry piece. Our certification in STEAM and STEAM was actually developed in collaboration with Business and Industry and Georgia, so in addition to all of these pieces of engaging students and hands-on application and being interdisciplinary, we also really like to see STEM and STEAM to be driven by those local partners, local industry. So a STEM or STEAM school in Blue Ridge will look really different than a school in Savannah, Georgia, on the coast, because it should be driven by those industries. Um, we’re really invested in thinking about employability skills, engaging students and ultimately preparing them for the real world and future jobs.

Jamie
Wow. And let’s go back to what you said about: it’s an approach to teaching. So this might not be something you use every lesson, every day, right? This is just an approach or a strategy for our teacher toolboxes.

Meghan
Right, absolutely. Umm, not every lesson. Not every standard is gonna be taught in a way that’s interdisciplinary. And I think that’s really important for teachers and leaders to understand? When you’re looking at what you’re teaching students, you want to make sure that you’re doing it in the best way possible. So you don’t want to force a standard to be interdisciplinary where it doesn’t fit because you can confuse students that way.

Jamie
Right, natural pairing – so important. We’ll talk about STEAM in a second. We’ll get there. Can you tell us more about STEM schools in Georgia before we get to the STEAM piece?

Meghan
Sure, so we have over 70 schools in Georgia that have received the Georgia Department of Education STEM certification. This began to be offered in 2012 as a way to recognize and support school-wide implementation of stem instruction. We have quite a few criteria to become a STEM certified school, but some of the main ones are project-based learning, student-centered instruction, interdisciplinary instruction and, again, the strong business and community partnerships. At the middle and high school levels, we also look at collaboration between mathematics, science and CTAE. So again that career-technical-agricultural-education and one of the main goals, it’s really to help students see the relevance of what they’re learning and how they might apply that knowledge both in and out of the classroom.

Jamie
Wonderful. Now, if a school is already designated through the Department of Ed as a STEM focus school, can they simply add an ancillary arts class like a music class or visual arts class and become a STEAM school? How- what is that transition like? How does a school become truly a STEAM school in Georgia?

Meghan
That is a great question and a common misconception. No. A STEAM school is not a STEM school that also happens to have arts classes. It’s truly an arts-integrated approach to learning and making sure that the arts really becomes a part of the culture of the school. In Georgia, you can achieve STEM certification and then move to STEAM. But you can also just go straight for STEAM certification. You don’t have to check the box for STEM first.

Jamie
And you mentioned arts integration. How do you see STEAM differing from true arts integration? Or are they hand in hand?

Meghan
I think that they definitely share a lot of similarities. One of the big pieces is thinking about that intent and the purpose behind it. So when we think about where STEM came from, and the history of STEM, it was really looking at the workforce in the United States and making sure that we’re preparing students for these STEM careers, whereas a nation we were falling behind. Then there became this push for “well, what’s missing?” and a big piece of it is the fine arts. The arts are missing and you know, I I hear a lot. “What about, you know, STREAM and all these letters getting added to the acronym.” And in some ways it’s really not about the acronym. It’s about the best practices and doing what’s best for kids and engaging curriculum. Things that have been around forever, project based learning, thinking about learning styles. But it’s also looking at some of those careers where we have underrepresentation of women or people of color, and the fields are dominated by men. So when we look at STEM careers, how do we attract women to those fields? And there’s so much research out there about including the arts that I think is so powerful. To engage students. I heard a quote recently that says If you leave the A out of STEAM, you’re also potentially excluding certain students. So how do we recruit those students and get them excited about these fields that they may not see themselves in? So I think that’s a piece of it. When when our schools are thinking about a mission and a vision for STEAM, what is the intended outcome? But with that being said, there are a lot of similarities in terms of the curriculum and the way that they’re bringing in the arts and with STEAM, we want to see that the arts are being held to the same level as the other subject areas just like you would in arts integration. One thing that I do think it does separate it at times is that business and community partnership component and making sure that it really is driven by students solving real-world issues in line with their local business and community partners. So in terms of how a school becomes a STEAM school, it’s… typically takes about 3 to 5 years in Georgia and that can seem really overwhelming. But I think there’s some tips that teachers could use or if there’s a group of teachers within a school that are interested and I kind of lay it out as a few steps to get started. The first within a school is to establish a team of teachers that are gonna leave this work. So I like to call it the STEAM Team. We love rhyming in education. So figure out your STEAM team and the group that’s gonna really drive the work and make sure that includes different representatives from different grade levels. You want to make sure your arts leaders are involved in it as well, and then the most important piece is to determine a vision. What is the purpose for doing this. Why are we doing STEAM? Because you want to make sure it’s not an initiative that’s just doing what the hot new acronym is. Or doing it because the school down the street is calling themselves a STEAM school. Really thinking about what does it mean to be a STEAM school? And why should we be doing that for students? And we also encourage, as a part of that process, to really think about the A. Why do you want to include the A IN STEAM? And we want that because we want to encourage schools to think about what students can gain from including arts in the curriculum. And so we’ve seen amazing visions and missions come out of it, where teachers and leaders are thinking about equity. Or they’re thinking about students becoming more empathetic thinkers where they’re preparing students for the creative economy which is growing and growing in Georgia, with our film industry. And really defining their why and making sure that the business community and their stakeholders and their parents are involved in creating that mission, and that becomes really the tool where they can look at their lessons and look at the ways that they’re integrating the arts to make sure that it’s purposeful, to make sure that it’s not an arts and crafts type of integration, but that it’s really making sure the arts are achieving those goals that they laid out in that mission. I always recommend looking at the Georgia Council for the Arts when our schools are doing this work. They have unbelievable advocacy tools, research tools… Resources where schools connect with the teaching artists. It’s really a great place to start. From there our schools will determine a school-wide problem-solving process. What I love about this so a lot of our schools are probably familiar with the engineering design process, but a lot of our STEAM schools get creative with this. We’ll pull pieces from the design thinking process. So if you’re familiar with that, it always starts with empathy. There several versions of it out there, and I think that’s really important when you’re thinking about the arts and STEAM is that you’re thinking about who am I designing for, who am I solving this problem for and the arts are really all about empathy. It’s about understanding the world around us, understanding other people’s perspectives. So that’s a really powerful thing that I’ve seen our STEAM schools do and, of course, identifying business and community partners, making sure that there are arts partners involved and defining for your community? What do we mean by that? It doesn’t mean you have to be a professional painter or a professional dancer to be our arts partner. Maybe you grew up doing an art form that you miss. Or maybe it’s a dad who plays the guitar that is now in the hallway with students helping them write jingles about their STEAM projects. It can be a big partner or small partner. And then I’ll just kind of end with the professional development piece, making sure that there is the arts PD for classroom teachers to build their confidence, engaging them in arts experiences and really leveraging the arts educators in the school. I think sometimes there can be a concern with both arts integration and STEAM. What happens to the art teacher if everybody’s teaching art? Um, and it’s actually the opposite of my job is going to go away. They become absolutely indispensable in the school. They become the though leaders there, helping make those connections and really driving the work ummm, but at the same time having opportunity to maintain their own content. Don’t want the arts classroom to become a STEAM classroom where your arts teachers trying to connect to every subject area. You want to make sure that the students have a place where they can gain that foundation in the arts that then they’re applying outside of arts classroom. And from there it’s all about collaborating, finding connections across the disciplines and then practicing, reflecting partnering with the community to make projects authentic. And seeing it blossom. It takes time, but it’s so worth it.

Jamie
Wow, so many gems in that answer you just gave us from this focus on empathy – truly a 21st-century soft skill, although probably one of the most important skills all teachers can think of to instill in their students, all the way to this idea of really recognizing and empowering the expertise at the school level with the STEAM Team and, of course, the professional development in Georgia and even beyond. And Meghan, as you know, the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, has a fabulous online conference every summer for arts integration and STEAM. Okay. We want some learning examples. Some rich examples from STEAM schools. Paint the picture for us, Meghan.

Meghan
Yeah, this is a, this is a tough one because I could talk about this for probably three hours. It is my absolute favorite part of my job to see classroom teachers really get excited about the arts. And and that’s what makes him so special is you might have a teacher who doesn’t have a background in the arts but then really comes to life when they find ways to integrate the arts. And in Georgia, I want to emphasize when we talk about the arts with the S on the end, it’s not just the visual arts. It’s also dance theatre, music, media arts, there so many ways that you can bring in arts-based learning. So it’s amazing to see the things that teachers come up with. I’ll share a few examples that I love in particular. Um, recently, I visited an elementary school that was teaching students some standards, looking at partitionings so their mathematics standards and also looking at physical characteristics. And they did it through a scenario where the students actually collaborated with a local candy company and got to create their own chocolate bars. And so they had to think about how they would package their chocolate bars, the physical properties of the chocolate bars. They came up with the recipes. It was a great experience for me. They gave me free chocolate, Um, but for the arts part, they also collaborated with the high school graphic design course. So the high school students came down, who were part of that CTAE course, and work with students, work with the teachers. It was just a great way to do some in-house professional development, actually, from those high school students, you have the expertise and build that partnership. The students warned what it means to be a graphic designer. They learned what that career choice would mean, but they also had to make some decisions about the design of their box and how they would market it and learn a lot of arts vocabulary along the way. And so that was a really fun example that I saw recently. So a number of our schools will connect with local industry and of course, agriculture is huge in Georgia. So we have a lot of schools that will identify project-based learning that is tied to animal life or school gardens so one example is a school that has chicken coops, and it’s their kindergarten project-based learning focus is that they have chicken coops, and they’re counting the number of eggs that the chickens lay. But it’s also really fun to see them responding using theatre techniques. The school is really close to Columbus, Georgia, which is where our state theatre, the Springer Opera House is located. And so they collaborate with their arts integration program, the PAIR Program there, and that group comes in, and they help the students learn some choreography to really understand what’s happening with their chickens and represent what they’re learning. And it really goes throughout the school year where they’re learning about day and night and using theatre techniques. And that’s been really exciting to see. Um, another example at high school, and I will talk about this to the best of my abilities, with the disclaimer that I don’t fully understand the science and mathematics. It’s a little over my head.  

Jamie
Same.  

Meghan
You do the best I can, but I loved this example. This was a high school where the students read the text Lord of the Flies. And then they were put in a scenario where in their math and science classes, they actually created a biofuel using the scenario: If we were on this island, this deserted island, like the characters in the book were, what type of biofuel could we create to get off the island? And so they did the math and science that I don’t fully understand in those classes. But then, at the end of it, they actually created a movie scene in small groups, imagining if they were those characters and did get off the island using that biofuel, what would that have looked like? And so through that it was a great integration of ELA but also bringing some of the theatre standards where they had to think through what with script look like? How do we bring in characterization? What is the conflict that happens when we carry out the rest of that storyline? So that was a great way to engage students… Umm and something that I think is really interesting, that’s a school that started as STEM but then they really wanted to find ways to recruit more females to the program. And so they have added AV Tech as a pathways to really thinking about that arts component to recruit more females to their program. And so that’s a great example of that.

Jamie
That is fabulous. All of these examples are giving me goosebumps, just the collaborative nature and the experiential learning that’s happening in Georgia’s STEM and STEAM classrooms is phenomenal. When I hear chicken coops and I hear graphic design and I hear audiovisual technology, I feel like maybe I’m similar to a lot of listeners in that when we hear these things, we think this is going to be a very expensive process that is going to require a lot of materials and a lot of funding. Is STEAM expensive by nature? Or are there ways to, um, complete STEAM projects and STEAM inspired learning on a budget?

Meghan
That’s a great question. It definitely can be expensive if you want it to be, but it doesn’t have to be, and I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about what STEAM is. Even when I first got hired for this job, I had a friend asked me. Well, they know that you don’t know how to use a 3D printer? Oh, my gosh, I think so! Um, and never once have I have been asked in this job to show someone how to use a 3D printer and there’re so many misconceptions that this work is all about the technology and the gadgets. Really, it’s about pedagogy. In terms of bringing in the arts, there are really low budget ways to do that. Whether it’s having students respond to visual works of art… you can dance without spending a penny, you can have students move. You can have them write scripts. There’s plenty of ways to bring in the arts without having to buy a lot of materials. And usually, I encourage schools to maybe start with not looking at the visual arts standards first. Look at the other areas because they tend to be a little bit cheaper. They don’t require those materials the way visual art sometimes does, although again there are ways to respond and talk about art where you don’t have to have materials. So you know there are ways to get around it. The other pieces… I think that the community typically gets really excited about this work. There’s a school working on STEAM outside of Augusta, Georgia, where they wanted to do an investigation of warm colors vs cool colors in raised bed gardens. They wanted to see if the color of the raised bed gardens impacted the plant growth at all. Or if we put the cool colors in the shade, will that make a difference? And they reached out to a local hardware store and they completely funded it, they sent out volunteers to come build the raised bed gardens with the students. So I think it’s it’s something where the community gets excited too. Um, a lot of times our schools do this work not backed by education grants, but backed by the local community that says, you know, this is something great that you’re doing. I want to see education look like this too, and I want to be involved.

Jamie
Positively. Some excellent considerations there about partnerships with your local and state community. So important. Do you have to have a specific teaching certification to properly teach STEAM?

Meghan
I think the only certification that is required is one that teachers can give themselves, and that’s giving themselves permission to be creative, take some chances and try something new. That this work is all about doing what’s best for kids and making sure that we’re providing opportunities for them to truly engage, to be thinking empathetically, to be thinking of careers that are in the future for them. So really, I think that’s the only certification that they need. Um, and a lot of times that takes that school leadership too, of saying let’s as a school, take a chance and change the way that we’re teaching kids.

Jamie
Positively. How can we find out more about Georgia Department of Education’s STEM and STEAM initiatives?

Meghan
Sure, so everything related to STEM and STEAM in Georgia lives on our website, which is STEMGeorgia.org, and there’s tons of resources on there. We have our criteria for certification, which is really guidelines that I think any school can use, whether they’re considering becoming a STEAM school or thinking about implementing some STEAM practices in their classroom as well as a number of other resources that we’ve created.

Jamie
Teaching Trailblazers is a production of the Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM and I’ve been your host, Jamie Hipp. This podcast is produced, edited and mixed by Jaime Patterson.