STEM or STEAM? How should schools approach art?

by Cody Candler

At my university, I study in the field of civil engineering as well as the field of education. Being an engineering major, the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education has been highlighted in nearly every course I have taken (aside from a regrettable expedition into phylosophy).  The importance of STEM curriculum was further burned into my psyche when I began studying education–my university is well known for producing STEM teachers. However, I recently came across an article by Anne Jolly on Education Week which got me thinking.

That article, “STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong?,” [1]  argues both sides of the debate of STEM vs. STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics). It discusses the high demand for STEM skill sets in today’s workforce as well as the danger of neglecting art as a subject. The article argues that art courses are often a way to bridge underrepresented students to STEM courses. Of course, additional art courses mean less time for STEM courses. The article achieved a shift in the solidity of my educational opinions. At the very least, it got me to doubt myself a little.

As I got wrapped up in the idea of ushering in a new generation of students who could fill America’s pressing needs, I took for granted two things:

  1. How to solve those needs creatively
  2. What those needs actually are

Creativity is constantly overlooked in our education systems. Sir Ken Robinson gave an excellent TED talk on the subject–attributing a variety of factors to this creative deficit. Whether it be a fear of looking stupid or a lack of art courses, creativity is declining. This can be seen in the nationally declining scores of Q tests (a test designed to measure creativity) [2]. Robinson argues that creativity is vital in creating a sustainable future.

Recently, I built a ukulele that could teach someone how to play it. It tapped the keg of the accumulation of my engineering education. Just about every structural, electrical, and coding facet of my knowledge came into play. HOWEVER, I may have spent more time on the aesthetics than anything else, and I still feel that I may have fallen short in some regards.

ukulele

Photo by Cody Candler

The project would have been absolutely impossible without the woodworking experience I had gained from 1) my father and 2) my high school wood shop. Having that under my belt, I know that still more art background would have given me greater creative vision on the project. The creative capacity that dedicated art courses help to develop is invaluable. In high school, I took the classes that I felt I was supposed to take. I opted for AP courses at nearly every opportunity. Each was great in its own way, but few helped to fuel my creativity.

For this reason, I feel that STEAM merits some credibility. In my experience, art courses have aided me in creatively solving engineering problems. I believe that is one of the things that can help an engineer be great, one of the ways an engineer can solve a problem beautifully.

Of course, the counter arguments are quite obvious. The foremost is that adding art courses means less time can be dedicated to STEM. Pushing the point further, ideal STEM courses are designed to implement creative design and art into their curriculum [1]. This leaves the unanswered question, which approach balances the needs of our students better.

Jolly proposed that “applied art” courses be designed, courses that could seek a viable use for the content (e.g. design, performance, and creative planning courses). This could help art courses to apply more directly to STEM careers. All that I can concretely say is “I am thankful for the art classes that I took.”

Regardless of whether STEM or STEAM is the right choice, a STEAM curriculum is being developed for Colorado so we will likely hear more from STEAM soon. Which curriculum are you in favor of? Leave your comments below.

[1] Jolly, Anne. “STEM vs. STEAM: Do the Arts Belong?” Education Week Teacher. Education Week, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Jan. 2016.<http://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2014/11/18/ctq-jolly-stem-vs-steam.html&gt;.

[2] Merritt, Jonathan. “The Creativity Crisis | Q Ideas.” Q. Qideas.org, n.d. Web. 30 Jan. 2016. <http://qideas.org/articles/the-creativity-crisis/&gt;.

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