Adding an ‘A’ to STEM is madness

quicksandSomehow, and I don’t understand how, there is a growing movement to make STEM into STEAM by adding an ‘A’ that stands for, depending on who you talk to, ‘Arts’ or ‘Art and Design’.

So the ‘A’ can mean adding in Arts and Humanity subjects like English, Geography and History, or it can mean adding in Art and Design. The very fact that it can mean both those things is indicative of the underlying issue that there are a bunch of people simply trying to piggy-back on a perceived focus on STEM education. And that makes me splutteringly mad.

First of all, STEM education is in a mess: That’s why we need to focus on it. People are confusing the idea that everyone is talking about STEM with success. There’s lots of rhetoric, but little real STEM education action. There is no real success to piggy-back upon. The aim of the focus is to make changes to the way we teach because the STEM subjects are not being taught adequately and too few students are choosing to do them.

If you remove that focus you return to the status quo. And really by the time you add History, Geography, English and Art back into the ‘focus’ about the only existing subject not being covered is sport (STEAMS anyone?). There may well be advantages to a broad general education but the current mess we’re in is a result of such generalising and we’re not going to change anything by blunting what little focus there is.

There’s no question that English and History and Geography are important: But we already teach those things and have no shortage of teachers or students. We don’t teach STEM properly and tangling the two up helps not one whit. Adding in art is just ludicrous in the context of limited space in a crowded curriculum. Art is important for its own sake, but does it really need to be focused on in the same breath as STEM at a time when we are churning out a horrifying number of innumerate graduates?

Here’s what the STEAM movement in the USA says:

In this climate of economic uncertainty, America is once again turning to innovation as the way to ensure a prosperous future. Yet innovation remains tightly coupled with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – the STEM subjects. Art + Design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century. We need to add Art + Design to the equation — to transform STEM into STEAM.

Yup, science and technology – so last century. Frankly, art and design will only transform technology in the 21st century ‘as science and technology did in the last century’ if we continue to fail to teach science and technology properly and find ourselves in some dystopian future where everyone can design but no one can actually make anything. Please don’t get me started on how you ‘design’ a new antibiotic. Apple has clearly demonstrated how important design can be to a successful product – but a curved back on an iPhone would be meaningless if we didn’t have people designing aerials, software, circuits, and so on.

If we were already going great guns on STEM education this would all seem like a side-issue. But we’re not, we’re barely making progress and so burdening the STEM movement with additional baggage or blunting its focus is madness. This feels like one of those movies where the hero is about to break free of the quicksand when someone else’s hand lurches up and grabs their ankle dragging them backwards. And just as in those movies the irony is that all that they’ll achieve is getting everyone killed.

We should certainly be teaching the ‘A’ subjects, but mucking about with a nascent movement to get some decent focus on STEM education is a terrible idea.

10 thoughts on “Adding an ‘A’ to STEM is madness

  • June 5, 2016 at 3:32 am

    Clearly you don’t understand the point where science and arts intersect. (And I’ve not seen ANYONE even remotely suggest the humanities as subjects are the A to add in to STEM.) The point is that the creative process used in dance,drama, visual art and music, and media is the same process used in science discovery and engineering problem solving. There is information and technique artists can use from science thinking and information and technique that scientists can use from arts thinking. Siloing subjects in education got us into trouble in the first place. 1 hour of math, 90 min. of Language Arts, 30 min. of Science 2 times per week, etc. doesn’t reflect real life for children. LIfe is integrated with math, science, language, and arts all calling to us every hour of every day. (Video gaming being perhaps the most obvious popular intersection.) Learning how to maximize the creative process, motivating us to research and learn skills will lead to innovation. Drawing bright non-inclusive arbitrary lines will not.

    • June 6, 2016 at 11:53 am

      The point I was trying to make had nothing to do with the value of the ‘A’. However, it is that at least in Australia, and in many parts of the US and UK, STEM is used primarily in the context of dealing with a serious problem in getting students to study Maths, Engineering, Technology and Science. The number of students leaving school functionally innumerate is horrifying. As is how few students, and especially female students, choose to study engineering, maths or science at university.

      For those of us campaigning to get more educational focus on the STEM subjects this is a very real and current issue.

      There’s no argument that art and design are important for people in those disciplines. However, in the context of getting politicians and society at large to focus on the problem of STEM education, adding art and design into the discussion is not helping.

  • June 7, 2016 at 5:19 am

    Evan, I understand your concerns for STEM education and what some may believe to be the crux of the STEM to STEAM movement. Although, I would frame it as a step in the right direction towards whole-person contextual learning. I will agree that there are numerous programs out there that call themselves STEM with no clear indicators of what they have done for the students or how to easily measure the quality of any given program, especially for parents who don’t have advanced degrees in the topic. (I am seeing a growing trend across the states and countries that have organized guidelines for STEM programs and will assess a district’s offerings to provide a certification of STEM quality.)

    However, I would like to address the “madness” that you speak of in the adding of the “A” and everything but sports to STEM.
    I propose that one of the things inherently missing from STEM education is the Social Studies contextual component. I applaud you for recognizing that some people have been indicating that the A include the liberal arts, and therefore social and language contexts. For those programs only including design and aesthetics as the “A”, they are inherently adding psychological appeal and possibly ergonomic considerations. Yet, they are still sometimes missing the context.

    Although you see the Arts (Humanities) important, but not imperative to studying STEM, many research and practical examples give evidence for a disagreement with this claim. When the subject areas are broken down and grouped according to their definitions and applications, STEM is what and how you can perform processes with elements and materials, STEAM includes who and why those things are done and also a means by which to convey deeper level understandings of things beyond the base language of mathematics. STEAM is not just making STEM pretty. STEAM is adding the full spectrum of the humanities and how an individual relates to the STEM fields. For those reasons STEAM strengthens STEM education by providing a way for educators to work together to create cohesion for students with what they are being taught. With this understanding they can further apply it to real world applications thus creating a life-long holistic approach to learning. I am the founding educational researcher of STEAM. There is much research to back how the subjects inter-relate to each other, and, to the rapidly-developing business world. My specialty is on researching these connections while continually learning from a group of networked educators to create dynamic, fully-integrated learning opportunities that are able to keep up with global changes and universal discoveries.

    STEAM, as defined by a result of much research, addresses the STEM education concerns you brought forward along with some other key components of integrating rigor and context and engagement in K-12 programs.
    For example, schools are losing art and music teachers at an alarming rate and rarely do the physical education instructors get cut. Class sizes are on the rise and ‘non-core’ educators in PE, music, and sometimes art are expected to handle double size classes plus offer them a large variety of expensive equipment. Within the STEAM framework, Art, Music, CTE and PE courses are where the STEM and Liberal Arts curriculum come together to give practical application of knowledge along with opportunity for rich engagement without the need for large budgets.

    I appreciate your efforts to keep STEM in the spotlight. As someone who has advanced degrees in both Technology Education and Integrated STEM education, having both taught STEM and served as President of the VA Council of Technology and Engineering Educators, I too wish to keep the topic of STEM education, especially in K-12 schools alive and well within the STEAM framework. In an effort to offer you a deeper version of STEAM to contemplate and comment on, I would like to invite you to have a free copy of my introductory professional development course on STEAM (Tier 1). I would very much welcome your analysis of the work after you have a deeper understanding of the research that backs up the formal STEAM movement as compared to the information you have gathered from across the spectrum of what people are calling STEAM.

    Thank you earnestly for writing a passionate piece that stirred me to respond.

    All my best,

    Georgette Yakman

  • June 7, 2016 at 7:05 am

    I suggest you go online to UC San Diego’s website and look at their major, Speculative Design. It’s a combo of science/technology + art/design. Seems like STEAM might be a good idea after all

  • June 7, 2016 at 7:41 am

    Just for clarity… I’m not arguing that creativity, art, design, etc is not important. Quite the opposite I spend a lot of time arguing that STEM students need to be given opportunities to be creative, to be taught creativity, to be able to articulate their ideas.

    It’s the labeling and the confusion it creates when trying to get more time and resources devoted to the problem of STEM education that my rant is addressing.

    So thank you Georgette for an argument that addresses this practical issue and I certainly see your points about the advantages of integration from an educational standpoint.

    What I remain unconvinced about, however, is how blunting the focus on STEM helps politically in getting the required funding and resources to address a very serious problem. In Australia that problem is the tumbling numbers studying maths and science at school or university, the fact many school students are being taught by out-of-subject teachers because there simply are no maths or science teachers available, and that our students are being rated very poorly in maths and science compared to many other countries. That’s the primary problem which I see needing attention – and fixing it requires a political will backed by money which is currently not forthcoming, in spite of a wave of rhetoric about how we need to shift to a 21st Century economy.

    So I feel like I’m being backed into a corner where I’m against a more holistic approach to teaching STEM subjects. That’s not what I’m about. I want STEM taught, so we can then move on to debate the best way of doing so.

  • June 7, 2016 at 10:33 am

    Evan, every time you say Art is important, or Art should be taught, you add a “but” or a “however.” Being a teacher of Technical Theatre, I see the importance of teaching the Art with the Science. STEM without an artistic eye is a dystopian landscape of coders and programmers. The A in STEAM is so much more than art classes. It’s seeing beauty and sorrow and the human in humanity. It’s why I fight every year to keep the concert band as part of our graduation ceremony. It’s why our biology classes need to draw plant life. It’s why we all learned the alphabet by singing it. The A keeps us human, brother.

    • June 7, 2016 at 11:00 am

      You’re right I do add a ‘but’ because I don’t think the people putting alternate views get where I’m coming from: That I can believe that art and design are important in the teaching of STEM without wanting to overtly include them and so blunt the focus of the movement to get STEM into schools. Art etc is important, I really believe that, BUT (there I go again) blunting the focus on STEM does not help it get the political and financial backing required to change the current situation and get more people studying STEM subjects. I’m really not arguing here about how STEM subjects should be taught, I’m advocating for getting them taught at all.

  • June 8, 2016 at 8:52 am

    There is a growing fear among teachers in “the Arts” that if STEM is adopted, it will be a short road until the arts are viewed as second rate subjects, and not worth the little funding they have now. We live with the constant feeling that if funding in the schools is EVER a serious issue, our subjects will be the first on the chopping block. Many feel it is not piggy-backing on STEM success, but rather a matter of inclusion for survival. I am fortunate to work in a district that values all subjects and strives to teach to mastery levels in each.

  • June 10, 2016 at 1:46 am

    There is a misconception that mathematics above all, and STEM subjects in tandem are the subjects in the curriculum that drive industrial and economic progress above all others. The fact is that only a small proportion of students go on to apply advanced leaning in STEM subjects in ways that advantage modern societies economically. Yes, a small but significant number of specialists are needed in technical, scientific and IT design, as well as appliers of maths and computing. But it is a spurious argument that all of school education needs to be distorted to prioritize these subjects and background other arts, humanities and bodily subjects (sport, dance, etc). In fact, foregrounding what I might call technical education develops a technicist frame of mind that is not critical and questioning about broader issues (ethical, humanitarian, environmental, social, political issues, etc). I say this as an insider in mathematics who is committed to the advance of mathematics (and STEM subjects overall) but who is even more committed to the advance of humankind. So I applaud STEAM as a way of rebalancing this, and using Arts components to situate and contentextualize the social and ethical issues that STEM subjects raise! In addition the Arts dimension is an essential part of developing whole, healthy and rounded human beings able to contribute to society in all ways at all levels. We all know that science, applied maths and technology are value laden. Controversially I also believe (and argue elsewhere) that pure mathematics is value laden and indeed has ethical dimensions. We need arts and humanities subjects including philosophy to point this out!

  • June 21, 2016 at 8:29 am

    Madly important discussion.
    Thank you, Georgette for weighing in, you have written exactly what I was thinking when I first read Evan’s post. STEAM vs STEM involves blending rather than blunting.

    Way back in 2012 (I’m being facetious, so much “STEAM” has erupted in the last four years, it feels like eons!) I discovered while Googling around one morning, in the midst of writing a proposal for a STEAM-centric, PK-6th grade public charter school in Newport, RI. It was a very loud EUREKA moment when I came upon Georgette Yakman’s site.

    In the 21st Century, we experience a world that is exploding with technology, yet our school houses and state houses remain tethered to 19th and 20th Century pedagogy and priorities. The time for an educational rebirth is NOW.

    STEAM education supplies the platform.

    Using music and art to teach the patterns, sequencing and symmetry — draws the child into math lessons. Viola! Asking young girls to create a story, draw a picture, and then make the characters come to life using basic coding, such as MIT’s SCRATCH — introduces computer science and higher level mathematics.

    What’s needed?
    A contemporary Sputnik moment, that will ignite an educational transformation, redirecting young minds from a passive/consumer based society to a world of making and rejuvenate the power of STEM learning — geared towards girls and minorities, not just the white boys!

    But, how?
    Hands-on, project-based, experiential learning, across integrated disciplines — guided by re-energized/re-educated classroom teachers working collaboratively, and given the right tools — will make learning the rigorous subjects FUN and relevant…starting with our youngest learners! If we don’t lay a proper foundational path, early in a child’s academic career, there will be no interest or understanding down the road to pursue STEM — in any form.

    Too hard?
    Maybe, if we continue to make excuses and allow politicians, ignorant and hidebound, to allow their old-school ways to win.

    Who loses?
    The kids, the community, our economic future.

    So, let’s “Giddy-Up!” End the arguing. Think of all the little Da Vinci’s we risk letting fall by the wayside while we debate whether the arts and science should be taught in a synchronized fashion!

    Take this argument to your social media platforms and the election booths — the change starts with you!


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