July | August 2017

by Shawntaye Hopkins
At a school just outside of Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River, students traverse a lush courtyard garden to move from class to class throughout the day. Art installations decorate the space that includes rain barrels, composting sites, nesting boxes, a pond and a full greenhouse—all designed and built by students.
In the garden, Springdale Junior-Senior High School students grow peppers and potatoes. They study fish and plants using hydroponic and aquaponic systems, also designed and built by students. They analyze data from Bluetooth plant sensors.
It is an outdoor hub for cross-curricular education in science, technology, engineering and math—known as STEM—as well as art.
Adding art has turned STEM into STEAM at many K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions across the country. Not everyone implements STEAM the same way, but education leaders and policymakers generally agree that fostering creativity is essential in preparing students for tomorrow’s workforce.
“The reason that the art came about—it addresses a need for creativity,” said Brett Slezak, a health and physical education teacher at Springdale. “You need to be able to design something. You need to be able to think differently so you can make something and affect the world.”
The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which oversees Springdale’s district and 41 other school districts in western Pennsylvania, awarded the school a $20,000 grant two years ago to establish the garden. The intermediate unit has awarded schools more than $2.6 million in STEAM grants since 2009 with support from two local foundations—The Grable Foundation and Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation—and Chevron, a new backer this year, said Megan Cicconi, the intermediate unit’s director of instructional innovation.
“The inclusion of art, I would venture to say that it makes one more thoughtful, reflective and intentional in a design process,” Cicconi said. “And it’s not just that we include art; it’s the idea that they are all infused so that it’s STEAM.”
After all, she said, the real world isn’t divided into single-subject textbooks.
“It is a world where learning is not compartmentalized like a typical filing cabinet or a traditional school,” Cicconi said. “And so we should prepare them for that interconnected world.”
For nearly four years, the Rhode Island School of Design has worked to advance the STEAM movement and raise awareness among teachers and policymakers, though the acronym “probably stretches back to about 2008,” said Babette Allina, executive director of government relations and external affairs at the design school. In May, U.S. Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island introduced a resolution in Congress to include art and design in federal STEM programs. Two years ago, the design school supported the formation of the bipartisan Congressional STEAM Caucus, which promotes innovation through STEAM.
The design school is also developing a STEAM curriculum for K-12.
“It is one way to do STEAM,” Allina said of the curriculum. “We’ve heard about hundreds of different ways. The most exciting part is that very often, teachers are finding each other and coming up with ways to integrate their programming.”
STEAM is primarily about broadening education and fostering innovation through creativity and not necessarily about how arts—whether it’s liberal arts or fine arts— are incorporated into school programs, Allina said. She recalled an engineering professor whose students studied dance to learn more about movement.
Illinois state Rep. Camille Lilly said she prefers to use the STEAM acronym as she pushes her state to realize the value of establishing art programs in schools and in the community.
“I believe STEAM is what we should be talking about,” Lilly said. “It’s all art. It’s all about the creativity, the innovation, all of that is art.”
A Changing Target
Over the past few years, the National Science Foundation—or NSF—has received an increasing number of proposals for programs that integrate arts and science, said Al DeSena, the foundation’s program director for advancing informal STEM learning.
“When it comes to generating new ideas in science education or engineering or things of that sort, ideas can come from a lot of different places, and sometimes they come from the arts world,” DeSena said.
The NSF, an independent federal agency, does not use the STEAM acronym because it was designed to promote science, not art, and it does not want to align with a specific cause. However, the NSF has funded some innovative programs that blend science and art.
DeSena said the integration of science and art is still experimental; there is little evidence of its impact. And STEAM, albeit popular, isn’t the only STEM variation.
STEAM has been turned into STREAM (an R for reading), STREAMS (an R for reading and an extra S for social studies) and SEAD (science, engineering, art and design). Some programs have added agriculture to STEM and referred to it as STEAM.
Slezak, however, recalled that decades ago teachers were fond of the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s not about the acronym, he said, but it’s about trying something different to engage students. STEAM, STEM—they won’t be around forever, he said.
“In 10, 15, 20 years from now, that acronym is going to change to something different,” he said. “It’s going to address whatever the current economic need is or whatever the current workforce need is. It’s going to change.”