A Guide to STEAM Education in Schools

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There’s just too much art in these STEAM lessons”. 

I heard this statement during a meeting with a STEAM coordinator not too long ago.  He was from a school district looking at moving towards implementing a STEAM initiative and for a moment, I was stunned. 

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that comment, to be honest. So I asked some follow-up questions to try and get some context and clarity.  Turns out, his background was as a science teacher and coordinator.  He had very little arts background and had chaired the district’s STEM committee. 

Now things started to fall into place. And, I could understand his hesitation and thought process a bit more.  He was simply making a statement based on what he knew of STEM lessons from his own background.  And what that showed me is that we still have a LOT of work to do when it comes to STEAM education. 

Let’s lay it out there: STEAM education is confusing for educators. There’s a lot of information out there about what STEAM is and what it looks like in the classroom.  Some of it is based in actual educational practice. And some comes from companies hoping you’ll buy their products. 

Additionally, STEM has been a prevalent push in our schools for a long time. Many educators mistakenly assume that STEAM is simply adding in a cute arts and crafts component to a STEM project.  Think about all those Marshmallow Challenges or Spaghetti Towers.  Just because you add color, texture or an art element to your STEM lesson, doesn’t make it STEAM. 

Much of this comes from the fact that many teachers and leaders are still unclear about the purpose and the pedagogy of STEM itself.  STEM was never meant to just increase the amount of time and interest students have for science, technology, engineering and math.  It has always been an approach for integrating those content areas together.  For making connections across those content standards. But that has gotten lost along the way with cool 1:1 device initiatives and fun gadgets. 

So it’s no wonder that STEAM has seen some pushback and people think it’s adding “fluff” to the curriculum.  If you don’t understand the foundations of STEM, STEAM can seem like it’s slapping on some paint to a more substantive lesson. 

For those who make this assumption, they are missing the point.  STEAM and STEM are two-sides of the same coin.  Both explore inquiry, connections and integration.  Both deepen the learning opportunities by teaching and assessing standards-based content.  Each content can stand alone and work together when intentionally paired. But it’s all about intention. 

STEM focuses on the process and inquiry of science, technology, engineering and math. This could look like engineering or math challenges, robotics and/or gaming development.   

STEAM utilizes design principles and connected processes from the arts and STEM areas as access points for inquiry, critical thinking and dialogue. This could look like up cycled art, music engineering remixes or choreography that maps the path of solar eclipses.   

Both STEM and STEAM have what I call “false positives”. These are activities, projects or lessons that claim to be an approach but are actually not really a true STEM or STEAM lesson.   

In STEM, an example of a false positive is a 1:1 initiative. You know – when you focus on each student having their own device like a laptop or tablet. Many proponents of STEM advocated for this as a STEM initiative, but in reality, it’s not. There’s nothing intentionally integrated between any of the STEM content areas by providing a device to each student. It’s not about the tools in STEM – it’s about how you use the tools and why they are being used. Just because you have a robotics lab or a Lego cart doesn’t mean you are a STEM school.   

Similarly, in STEAM, a false positive would be something like creating a Derby car. This was actually an initiative that happened recently from an automotive maker. This car company sent out free Derby car kits as a STEAM activity to schools and had students create a painted design on the car as the “arts” component. Again – there’s nothing intentionally being integrated here between the STEM or the arts content areas. It’s a fun project, but it’s not a STEAM lesson or unit.   

The interesting thing here is that STEM and STEAM aren’t that far apart – it’s simply a growth from one to the other.  

It’s time to finally let go of this idea that STEAM is simply a subset of STEM that adds some “fun” and “creative” activities to a STEM project. It diminishes the value of both STEM and the arts to do so.  

So what exactly is STEAM? If you google that question, you’ll find thousands of different approaches and answers. Which inherently is part of the problem. There’s not one single accepted definition. For our purposes, we’re going to use the EducationCloset definition which has been utilized around the world and in our own Department of Education at a federal level.  

STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the 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, persist in problem-solving, embrace collaboration, and work through the creative process. These are the innovators, educators, leaders, and learners of the 21st century.   

Let’s break that down a little bit. Here’s some key components that need to be present in order for STEAM to occur:  

  1. STEAM is an integrated approach to learning which requires an intentional connection between standards, assessments and lesson design/implementation.  
  1. True STEAM experiences involve two or more standards from Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and the Arts to be taught AND assessed in and through each other  
  1. Inquiry, collaboration, and an emphasis on process-based learning are at the heart of the STEAM approach  
  1. An essential question must be present in any STEAM lesson or unit  
  1. Utilizing and leveraging the integrity of the arts themselves is essential to an authentic STEAM initiative  

 

These components lead the lesson from a place of exploring and possibly solving a problem through the intentional connection of the STEM and arts content areas.   

Essentially, in a STEAM lesson, you’re presenting students with an overarching essential question for them to explore and possibly solve. I say possibly because sometimes the goal isn’t to get to an answer, but rather the goal is in the exploration itself. Once you’ve provided the essential question, you’ll select a STEM and an Arts standard through which to explore that essential question. You’ll design your lesson around teaching through those standards in a way that enables students to use their skills and processes to investigate, create and reflect on answering that essential question.  

Now how do we make the shift to STEAM?  First off, it’s important to understand that STEAM includes all of the arts – not just visual art.  It can connect with music, theater, dance and media arts as well.  And it’s an approach – not a cute project or an after-school program.  It’s a way of connecting across standards to help students get curious, explore multiple means of problem solving and use their own access points to create new solutions. 

The arts are at the heart of it all.  The arts have proven time and again to provide opportunities for students to tap into their unlimited potential.  Ask any arts teacher and you’ll find that they often see strengths in a student that other teachers miss.  It’s our job and privilege as educators to help each student rise to their potential using their strengths and their challenges.  Working in and through the arts gives us an access point for doing so. 

Second, let’s recognize that there is a time and place for both STEM and STEAM.  We need to stop pitting these approaches against each other and instead, use each when it’s most appropriate for our students’ overall learning.  Let’s keep the focus on what makes the biggest impact for students. 

It’s also important to understand that teachers will be uncomfortable using a content area in which they are unfamiliar. This is true for both content teachers and arts teachers.  It’s unfair to assume a classroom or content teacher can just add an arts standard to a lesson and be ready to use it with their students.  It’s also unfair to expect an arts teacher to teach math or science in their classroom without any background or training in that area.  To truly make STEAM work, we need to invest in supporting our teachers with ongoing and relevant professional development

Finally, it’s so important that leadership is invested in this approach.  There will be pushback from teachers and parents who don’t understand the purpose or the why behind the move to STEAM.  It’s our job as leaders to step into that discomfort with them.  To acknowledge that this process of using multiple content areas, integrating standards and ensuring integrity to each area is difficult.  And to do it anyway.  As leaders, we need to walk right along side our teachers and parents in the learning process if we want to see our students thrive using STEAM. 

This approach to learning is certainly not an easy task, but the benefits to students and the entire school community are tremendous.  Students and teachers engaged in STEAM make more real-life connections so that school is not a place where you go to learn but instead becomes the entire experience of learning itself.  We are always learning, always growing, always experimenting.  School doesn’t have to be a place, but rather a frame of mind that uses the Arts as a lever to explosive growth, social-emotional connections, and the foundation for the innovators of tomorrow…today! 

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TOPIC: STEAM EDUCATION IN K-12 SCHOOLS

4 CHAPTERS

STEAM education video viewing

VIDEO

STEAM from the Inside Out

Explore the foundations of the STEAM approach. This video shares what STEAM is, how it differs from STEM and examples of how to use the approach in schools.

STEAM Education in K-12 Schools

ARTICLE

What is STEAM Education in K-12 Schools

Dive deeply into the STEAM definition, model, process and outcomes that are being used in schools all over the world.

LESSON IDEAS

Base Ten Buildings STEAM Activity

Connect architecture and math to help students visualize abstract concepts.

Microscopic Images Resource

RESOURCE

Ideas for Incorporating Microscopic Images

A downloadable resource connecting science and the elements of art.