Gaining STEAM: Adding the Arts to STEM Helps Engage Learners


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For most parents, the growing prevalence of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs makes sense. After all, our economy is driven by high-tech companies, and these companies have a high demand on employees with backgrounds in engineering, programing, data analysis and other STEM-related disciplines. It makes sense that schools would respond by taking a cross-disciplinary approach to teaching children these disciplines, mirroring how they’re integrated within many job functions in the real world.

In recent years, parents may have noticed a twist to the STEM acronym: the addition of an “A” to create “STEAM.” The A stands for “arts.” Advocates of the STEAM framework say the arts, especially visual art and design, can enhance STEM programs in a number of ways, including making these disciplines more attractive to students who don’t think they’re strong science and math students. They also note that art — especially design — with its problem-solving approach, is just as integral to creating and running high-tech companies as is math and science. Think of Apple.

Making STEAM

But just how do STEAM programs or schools work, and how do they benefit children? Although STEAM programs are too few and too young to have produced much data, many education experts believe the concept has the potential to not only engage more children, but to help them become better critical thinkers and problem solvers — skills that companies prize.

“Children will learn based on the context in which information is presented,” says Paola Sztajn, associate dean for research and innovation at the North Carolina State University College of Education. “When the disciplines are presented separately, they may learn only one way to address a question, and they may not see the connections (among the disciplines).”

But if students are exposed to subject matter via popular STEM and STEAM approaches, such as problem- or project-based learning, Paola says they can make connections that enable them to answer questions or address challenges using math, computer code, design, engineering or a combination of disciplines.

“We want students to develop the ability to say, ‘I’m a doer, I’m a thinker, I can solve this problem,’” she says.

Several schools in the Triangle, from pre-K through middle school, offer STEAM programs or approaches — or plan to in the near future. The longest-running such program is offered at W.G. Pearson S.T.E.A.M. Elementary School, a gifted and talented magnet school in Durham.

“Our students obtain an understanding of all components of STEAM at higher levels and are exposed to knowledge that can even be applied to help enhance their career pathways, as opposed to the traditional methods of learning that you would find in a traditional elementary school,” says Principal Christy Boykin of the school, which evolved from STEM to STEAM during the 2012-13 school.

Boykin says the school supplements the state’s standard course of study — which, for elementary school, already includes art/music and science — through a combination of STEAM electives and special programs. For example, an engineering elective on robotics previously offered to students identified as academically and intellectually gifted in grades three through five will now be offered to all of the school’s third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. A technology elective that teaches kids the basics of computer coding is also offered. And all students are given an iPad to help them work as engaged, connected learns.

The STEAM approach to education is paying off for W.G. Pearson S.T.E.A.M. Elementary School’s students. In addition to meeting growth targets on end-of-grade assessments, “We have seen so many students totally change their perspective and outlook toward school because of our S.T.E.A.M. program,” Boykin says.

Building STEAM

Meanwhile, on Durham’s Orange Factory Road, work continues on Discovery School, scheduled to open as a STEAM charter middle school in August 2018. The school, which will occupy five buildings on 60 acres, will revolve around four daily “blocks,” three of which will address the STEAM disciplines of humanities (social studies and English language arts), math and science, and arts and technology, according to Toni Shellady, the school’s founder and board vice chairman. The fourth block will be called Passion Hour, giving students 60 minutes each day to explore — on their own or with a small group — an activity, subject or discipline that sparks their interest, whether it’s yoga, knitting, chess — anything they can practice and master, Shellady notes.

Shellady was motivated to create the school after teaching for 10 years, most of those at Voyager Academy, a STEM charter school in Durham. Observing how technology served to engage students and drawing on her love of dance, Shellady felt a STEAM middle school would be appealing to a wide variety of students and parents. She, like other advocates of the arts and STEAM, points to a number of studies that show students who take four years of high school arts-related classes have higher grade point averages and higher SAT scores, including in math, than their peers who take one or fewer years of arts programming.

“Communication, collaboration and creativity — emphasizing these skills, as well as teaching kids how to think outside the box, will lead to improved student outcomes,” Shellady says. Such an approach will also prepare students for the multidisciplinary environment of the workforce, she says.

And in downtown Raleigh, a new school is providing a STEAM-focused approach to the youngest of learners, as well as older students who might otherwise be bored during their track-out periods. Little Makers Academy, which includes a preschool, pre-K program and track-out classes for kids up to age 12, is based on the “makerspace” movement, says Alice Nelson, the school’s owner and director.

Makerspaces provide individuals with access to tools and supplies to create, fabricate and produce crafts and goods that they wouldn’t have the resources or space to do on their own. At Little Makers, a large space filled with STEM-related toys, tools and games also features art supplies and flexible seating to encourage creativity, Nelson says. A former schoolteacher, Nelson was driven to create Little Makers in part to celebrate “the doodlers” — those students in her classes who, while often drawing in the margins rather than paying rapt attention, were her favorites.

Young urban parents — creative types and those working for high-tech, downtown-based companies such as Red Hat and Citrix — have been quick to embrace Little Makers, according to Nelson. “We’re emphasizing the same things that companies are: creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication,” she says.


Suzanne Wood is a Raleigh-based freelance writer and mother of three.

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