STEM to STEAM: In Defense of the Creative Critical Thinker

Wondering if something may be missing in the rigid study of STEM? An expert from Arch for Kids argues that we may need a little “A,” or Arts and Design, injected into STEM.

As an educator and a mother, I have watched the changes to the American education system with a critical eye.

When my eldest daughter was in elementary school in the mid-90s, her science lessons consisted of infrequent and haphazard trips to a spare storage closet, where an unprepared teacher transferred soda water from one bottle to another. I remember my daughter claiming that “science isn’t a real subject” as I cringed at what this meant for her future.

When my two younger children entered the public school system in the early 2000s, I observed an increased curricular focus on science, technology, and math. The emergence of STEM, an acronym denoting the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, was a welcome change from the way these subjects had been taught in previous years.

That being said, I am an advocate of creativity above all else. Without the ability to create, a student has no outlet for STEM. What is the purpose of memorizing facts and figures without a practical application? A student will understand why bridges stand up better if she builds a model than if she memorizes a physics equation. We need to show students how STEM disciplines have affected and altered the world around them, and how they too can innovate using their knowledge of these subjects.

So, how do we get students to become innovators? We implement STEAM: “A” stands for Art and Design, and is inclusive of architecture. “A” is the outlet for S, T, E, and M. Without it, we cannot create.

What the “A” Can Teach Kids

The integration of art and design into K–12 education promotes critical thinking, an essential 21st century skill. Many STEAM advocates also argue that it “will increase student engagement” and encourage “the flexible thinking and risk-taking that are necessary in today’s complex and dynamic world.”

The implementation of STEAM will have long and lasting consequences for the economy as well. As the organization STEAM not STEM so succinctly explains: “Arts education is a key to creativity, which spurs innovation, creating new industries that are the basis of our future economic well-being.”

Why We Need It

Statistically, the United States falls far behind its international counterparts in the field of education. Our education system has been criticized for having changed very little over the past 100 years, and in consequence, has not effectively prepared students for the changing economic world. While the focus on STEM prepares students to compete in a more technologically driven job market, without an education in art and design, students lose an important competitive edge. As John Tarnoff, an established technology business entrepreneur explains:

“In my experience as an executive and entrepreneur sitting on both sides of the creative/technology fence, I need to hire technologists who know how to collaborate in teams, express themselves coherently, engagingly and persuasively, understand how to take and apply constructive criticism, and how to tell a good story. I don’t find these kids sitting alone at a lab table or buried in an algorithm. I find them taking art classes to understand how color and light really work, I find them in writing classes learning how to express themselves, I find them in cultural studies and critical theory classes learning about the world at large.”

Successful people cannot merely possess knowledge: They must be problem-solvers and innovators. The creative aspect of learning cannot be ignored. Through project-based learning and hands-on activities focused on the application of knowledge rather than memorization, students are taught to work in teams, grow and adapt to changing industries, and provide solutions for problems large and small.

Education needs to do more than teach the facts. It needs to teach how those facts can be used, expanded, and connected in order to change the world. In other words, it needs to go beyond presenting students with what to think, and instead help students learn how to think.

How We Can Teach This Creativity

What are some projects educators can use to implement STEAM in the classroom? My current start-up, Arch for Kids, focuses on project-based learning that helps students build and create using the world around them.

Students become architects and engineers, and in doing so, apply the STEM knowledge they are learning in the classroom. Projects, such as constructing bridges out of Chinese food containers, building skyscrapers out of recycled boxes, designing 3D facades inspired by local historical buildings, and modeling roller coasters out of paper towel rolls, encourage students to engage in a variety of subject areas and develop their own designs. They have to apply concepts like scale and implement the basic practices of engineering to make their structures stand up. Math and science become relevant to their lives through this tactile experience with materials.

Watching It Work

I’ll end with an anecdote. Last week, in one of Arch for Kids’ after-school programs, a student had an “Aha!” moment, something all teachers relish. Kevin, a fifth-grader, was building a roller coaster for a marble. We began the lesson by covering forces. I explained gravity as the force that causes the marble to roll down the rollercoaster. We then covered energy — kinetic and potential.

Kevin — understandably tired given the length of his day — said he didn’t understand the difference between the two. At the end of class, he was giving his marble a ride on the roller coaster when it got stuck at a particular bend. While it was paused, I asked him whether the marble was exhibiting potential or kinetic energy. “It’s not going,” he said. And I asked, “But does it have the potential to go?” to which he responded, “It has potential energy!” He then pushed it down the bend and said, “And when it’s in motion, it has kinetic energy!”

It was only after creating his own example of kinetic and potential energy that he fully grasped the concepts we covered in class. Though this anecdote is perhaps a bit simplistic, I experience (and cherish) moments like these in my classroom. They validate my personal philosophy on education: Learning is experiential and experimental. We need to create in order to learn!

Sources:

STEAM not STEM. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2015, from STEAM not STEM

STEM to STEAM. (n.d.). Retrieved January 8, 2015, from STEM to STEAM

Tarnoff, J. (2010, October 14). STEM to STEAM — Recognizing the Value of Creative Skills in the Competitiveness Debate. Retrieved January 8, 2015, from Huffington Post

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