Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects are the focal point of popular integrated learning systems. However, voices are calling out for the “A” in “arts” to turn STEM into STEAM. What does the debate involve, and what do educators and students think about it?
The National Math + Science Initiative points out some numbers that highlight STEM’s essential role in the United States’ education system. Their data shows that:
- By 2018, the United States may be short by as many as three million skilled workers.
- In 2008, only four percent of bachelor’s degrees earned in the United States were inengineering; 31 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded in China were in engineering.
- In 2009, only 12 percent of STEM professionals were black or Hispanic.
These and other statistics paved the way for today’s heavy emphasis on STEM subjects in the education system.
Another factor that contributes to the ongoing efforts to promote science and math is that students who may initially take an interest in such courses often change their minds because of external pressures and stereotypes. An article in Forbes says, “This past fall, Stanford University welcomed 474 women to their undergraduate engineering program, about 30 percent of their overall engineering enrollment. At Purdue University, 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees awarded go to women.”
The Forbes article cites the example of one woman who took a computer coding class in high school and was disappointed to find that she was the only girl in the class. When she went to a university, she chose international relations and French as her fields of study.
Does the “A” Really Have a Place?
Given the need for educators to focus on STEM in their integrated learning systems, is it really wise to say that the arts should also take a prominent place? Brian Dunning, a professional writer who focuses on scientific skepticism, says no to STEAM. He says, “The importance of art does not lie in any association with STEM.”
Dunning lists a few reasons for his naysaying. His reasons include:
- The need for STEM workers far outweighs the need for professional artists.
- NASA, the National Science Foundation, and other prominent institutions host programsthat promote STEM, not STEAM.
- STEM careers are male-dominated. A focus on STEM rather than STEAM in schools may shift the balance.
The Arts Matter
The practical nature of STEM subjects is clear, but that does not mean that the arts play no role in leading students to successful careers. In July 2014 Edudemic showcased an info-graphic by the University of Florida that shows how important that it is to recognize that a “half-brain” education — that is, an education that heavily favors either left-brained or right-brained subjects — is not good enough.
The infographic gives examples of prominent personalities who displayed strong characteristics from both sides of the brain. The examples include Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Marissa Mayer. Steve Jobs, while brilliant when it came to technology, also saw things from a creative perspective. He envisioned products and constructed a marketing strategy that appealed to people’s hopes, dreams, and experiences.
The above names represent only a few cases; their experiences don’t prove that STEM should morph into STEAM. However, the University of Florida conducted research that shows that “On average, students who study the arts for 4 years in high school score 98 points higher on the SATs compared to those who study the same for half a year or less” and that “Students who took up music appreciation scored 61 points higher on the verbal section and 42 points higher on the math section.”
Yes, students who study arts tend to perform better academically than those who do not, but there are further reasons why the arts are an important part of an effective education. Arts help students build confidence, develop motor skills, and hone their decision-making and problemsolving skills.
What Educators Think
The huge need for skilled workers in STEM professions is influencing the curriculums of schools, but what do teachers think about adding an arts emphasis into the ix? One professor at the University of New Mexico, Anne Taylor, is a strong advocate of giving arts and architecture a place. Taylor, who manages a program at a local elementary school, says, “We are in the middle of a three-year agreement with the school… We will do an assessment to see if math learning and other subject areas are impacted positively through the program.”
The principal of the school where Taylor’s program is being used wants to help students find their passions, and a well-rounded program like Taylor’s may be the key to doing that.
A school district in Illinois has an ongoing STEM program, and the principal of a middle school in the district says that “More and more, STEM is being embedded into the (core) curriculum…STEM is connected to everything in our society and it’s good for kids to see that.” In keeping with that spirit, the school also has a STEAM program; the students love the 3D printer that helps them take their designs to the next level.
EdWeek.org reports that some educators feel that STEM is adequate without giving more attention to the arts. After all, STEM programs don’t dismiss art or devalue it. The arts play a natural role in STEM programs and help students tackle design and engineering challenges.
Students Support STEAM
As teachers adjust to new core standards, students may struggle to adapt to new teaching methods. Do schools that already have a stable STEM program really need to integrate arts? Is it worth going through another adjustment period?
An article on redorbit.com reports that at a retreat attended by minority students, the students brainstormed ideas about what could make their STEM training more effective, and one of the suggestions centered on connecting STEM to arts and humanities.
The arts belong in schools, but do they have the right to change STEM to STEAM? Since art programs are already a part of the core curriculum in schools, is the debate really just a matter of words? Time will tell as educators continually adapt their approaches to give the greatest possible benefits to students.