The Arts in STEM: STEAM
This article is brought to you by National Science Teachers Association.
Arts funding has been under attack for years as schools look for ways to increase funding for the core subjects. Want another science teacher? We'll have to cut an art teacher. Or the music teacher. But there is growing evidence that the arts are a necessary part of education, and STEM education in particular.
In elementary school, regular class work and enrichment programs for students routinely combine the arts with math and science. In those years, the curriculum makes an effort to address all seven of what Howard Gardner referred to as "modes of learning": visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical. But once students reach middle school, the disciplines fractionate and students are siloed into one or two modes of learning, at most.
The sad part of this is that many of the world's greatest scientists and inventors were also artists, writers, or musicians. If we fail to recognize this connection, we separate the work of the heart from the work of the head, and this leads to unsatisfied students who may not be able to reach their full potential. In Sparks of Genius, by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, the authors discuss 13 thinking tools that the great scientists and inventors used in their work. Included among these are playing, body thinking, and recognizing patterns. Many of the Root-Bernsteins' thinking tools have some correspondence with Gardner's modes of learning.
Differences in modes of learning can be found even within a specific discipline. Henri Poincaré, a French mathematician (and a fascinating subject in his own right), had a deep interest in scientific creativity. Some of his work is described in Sparks of Genius. Poincaré recognized that among his mathematician colleagues, some were visual thinkers (those who favored images and geometry) and some were not (those who favored equations and logic).
All of this is by way of exposition, to lay the background for why STEAM education makes sense. In fact, two of the leading institutions of higher learning in the United States, one firmly entrenched in the arts (Rhode Island School of Design; RISD), the other world famous for science and technology (Massachusetts Institute of Technology; MIT), are leading the movement and taking the position that STEM and the arts are undeniably intertwined. RISD is funding the STEM to STEAM initiative, led by its president, John Maeda. At MIT, their vision of STEAM takes the form of the Media Lab, where cross-disciplinary study is fostered.
There is a compelling case for incorporating the arts into STEM education, but you might still ask what that might look like in practice. How can art easily be used in science or math curricula? It may take some research on the part of the teacher, but there are many ways to add art to any classroom, not just STEM classrooms. Geometry lends itself quite well to art, as any fan of Piet Mondrian could tell you.
Some other examples of the blending of art with other disciplines can be found in these intriguing science sculptures or this public art installation in a Canadian park. These minimalist artistic posters that represent the work of famous women scientists would make inspiring classroom decorations. If you're a math teacher, you might want to experiment with hexaflexagons. The work of M.C. Escher is full of fractal geometry.