Arts advocates want to get on the science-math bandwagon, turning STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to STEAM, reports Ed Week.

For instance, the Philadelphia Arts in Education Partnership, with support from a $1.1 million Education Department grant, is working with city schools to help elementary students better understand abstract concepts in science and mathematics, such as fractions and geometric shapes, through art-making projects.

Harvey Seifter, director of the Art of Science Learning, organizes STEAM conferences, arguing that studying art teaches creativity.

John Maeda, the president of the Rhode Island School of Design, “invokes STEAM as a pathway to enhance U.S. economic competitiveness, citing as an example the late Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, a leading force behind the iPod, iPhone, and other electronic devices,” Ed Week writes.

Sure, the arts are important. And integrating subjects often makes sense. But I worry that students will spend less time learning science and math and more time on the “crayola curriculum.”


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  1. This sounds like another in a long line of attempts to water down math and science, make them “fun” and mask differences among students. Math is the gateway to science and math is heavily sequential, so mastery of each step is necessary before advancement to the next. Many of the currently popular curricula (Everyday Math, Investigations etc. , which already have too much verbal and artsy stuff) fail to do this, leaving behind those students who cannot figure things out on their own or who don’t get outside help (parents, tutors, Kumon etc.). By the time they arrive in MS, far too many students are hopelessly behind and will never be able to manage stem careers.

  2. “Sure, the arts are important. And integrating subjects often makes sense. But I worry that students will spend less time learning science and math and more time on the “crayola curriculum.””

    Well, it’s not like prior to this federal education grant, art was altogether excluded from the science curriculum. For example, in a 5th grade class that I student taught in, the students had to do a science project. They had just finished learning about the major components of the human cellular system. Afterward, they were taught to draw a system of roads, factories, and delivery trucks that would serve as an analogy for how the human cellular system works.

    I think that’s appropriate. They’re in 5th grade and much of Biology will still be very technical for them. That is an example of what art can do, which is to bring the technical to more understandable terms.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      I’m with Autif here. At the 5th grade level a detailed diagram using an analogy to understand the concept seems appropriate. The art aspect is going to aid in understanding and conceptualizing. Unfortunately we still get this stuff at the high school level – arty-crafty projects that are neither real art or real science. My son just completed a biology project that required he compare the functions within a cell with the different departments/jobs at a hotel. He had to either write a paper or complete it as a power-point. Of course he, and every other kid in his class, chose the power-point option. I thought it was a bit lame, but he got an A.

      The good news: we have a generation of kids who are quite accomplished at mediocre art and power-point presentations. The bad news: they think that this is real rigorous learning.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Kamal. With respect, that seems like a jazzed-up diagram. Not art.
    Thing is about STEAM is that STEM is supposed to be where the jobs are. Do we want to change the aggregate results of going into STEM by having a portion of the students doing clay abstracts in a cheap loft?

  4. I’m guessing this is an attempt by arts educators to prevent the discipline from total elimination in the curriculum. My district has totally eliminated art (and also music) education from its elementary schools since the budget crisis- and I don’t think that my district is alone in having done so 🙁

    Art is important and I do think it should be taught in the schools, but I don’t think trying to reclassify it from the humanities to STEM is the way to save it.

  5. Too much reliance on art-type projects is also a great way to make science less rewarding for students who are good at science but halfhearted about art.

    • Agreed! Art and science really are separate disciplines (though there are some courses where they overlap such as drafting, architecture, design engineering, etc.)

    • It also makes good math/science students take a loss on grades if artwork considered in grades and they aren’t good artists. That was a real issue with all of my kids.

  6. I’m all for it if the art is taught and evaluated in a rigorous way. STEM often relies upon visual representations of molecules, anatomy, or construction. I often try to get my kids to sketch out the anatomy of organisms for my Biology class, but I also have a tendency to hand back anything that is subpar. My own artistic abilities are limited, but I expect my high schoolers to give me something that I can recognize.

    • Science teaching/learning does often benefit from visual representations (like the ones mentioned in above posts), but you can tell the difference between science and art when the teacher is not looking for imagination so much as accurate representation. If the teacher would be happy if every student turned in nearly identical diagrams, not thru copying each other but because they had all discerned the most effective way to communicate the science, then it’s not art in the sense that most art teachers would mean.

  7. I do the same Supersub, but thank God I work for a private school and as of now do not have to worry about someone telling me to change a rigorous study of biology into an art class. The point of me requring students (middle schoolers) to put time into the biology sketches is because I want them to learn to pay attention to details and work through the struggle of getting something correct, but the goal of the class is learning the important biology concepts, not developing artistic skills.

    I feel for Stacy – seeing her child doing such a watered-down cell activity in high school! While I used the analogy she described in my teachiing of cell parts and function to my 7th graders, the analogy was secondary; understanding and memorizing the functions of the cell was primary. I’m thinking that my seventh graders might know more about cells than the high schoolers in this case.

    When I was working in elementary public schools it was fairly commonplace for elementary teachers to turn science into arts and crafts projects in which the science was pretty much lost.

  8. John Maeda almost gets there when it comes to Steve Jobs, but doesn’t take the final step. He’s right that Jobs combined art and technology to create beautiful, world-changing devices. But just combining art and tech isn’t enough. It alone won’t yield what Maeda thinks it will. Moreover, it’s not what Jobs was trying to do.

    Steve Jobs was about creating experiences through technology. That was his form of art. On a mechanical level, it involved everything from insisting that the Mac have multiple fonts to bullying engineers to make the product that much better. When presented with an iPod prototype, Jobs told his engineering team to make it smaller. When they said they couldn’t, he took the prototype and threw it in a fish tank. When bubbles came out, he declared “Yes you can, there’s air in it,” then walked out of the room.

    At a deeper level, Jobs created experiences from a deep understanding of people. He made a business of creating experiences people didn’t know they wanted yet. The art and the technology were at the service of this understanding. For example, during development of the iPhone, they were close to final on the design with a plastic screen. It was high-tech plastic, supposedly as refined as possible. But, Jobs woke up one night and realized that no plastic would be as good as glass. It wouldn’t *feel* as good to the user.

    At this point, most companies would have launched into long discussions about plastic vs. glass, concluded that glass wouldn’t work, and have launched a plastic-screened iPhone. At Apple, with Jobs as CEO, the chances of a plastic-screened iPhone dropped to zero the minute Steve realized this. The mission became to make a glass screen work.

    In the end, the glass screen of the iPhone ended up being core to its success. The touch experience on glass is just better than the touch experience on plastic.

    On a broader scale, though, US competitiveness is going to hinge on our ability to create compelling human experiences using technology. The touch experience pioneered on the iPhone has changed technology to the point that using a device transcends language. Kids who can’t talk yet are able to explore and use an iPad because the touch experience is so transparent. We need to be doing more of this.

    Technology isn’t an end, never was. But people treat it like one. STEM is a pathway to improving human life. So is art. STEM, STEAM? They don’t matter. Understanding people matters. Right now it takes a visionary (and emotional manipulator) like Steve Jobs to provide this value. Academics aren’t providing this understanding, in large part because the current mental models in academia are designed not to. Tell me how critical theory brings (or has ever brought) a student closer to this deep, Jobsian understanding of human nature. Heck, those of you who would try probably just spent the last paragraph grappling with how to disprove my statement that the iPad touch experience transcends language.

    We need to think different. Our model for economic competitiveness should be based on making the human experience better, enabling people to do more and be more active participants in the world. It will take a fundamental change to academia far deeper than STEM vs. STEAM before it can claim to be supporting this model.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Just helped a ninth-grader–a Bhutanese refugee arriving last month–with her homework for Earth Science. The assignment was to make a poster looking like something in Earth Science (volcano, mountain, etc.) and put on it facts about yourself. Hobbies, likes, so forth. Figured that was more of the same pap people have complained about. Artsy-craftsy crap.

    However, it was the first week of the new trimester and maybe– I hope so–it was a getting to know your classmates excercise and the rest of the term will be more rigorous. Better be. I’ll find out.

    Although retired, and new to the area, I might find myself being a thorn in the school board’s side. This particular issue could be something to watch. After all, my wife is a retired teacher, not an employed teacher, and my kids are adults. What can they do to me?

  10. Cranberry says:

    I guess you haven’t heard of the Reel Math Challenge, at Mathcounts.

    Sponsored in part by the Department of Defense, the Reel Math Challenge is an innovative program involving teams of students using cutting-edge technology to create videos about math problems and their associated concepts.

    This new competition is meant to excite students about math while allowing them to hone their creativity and communication skills. Students will form teams consisting of four students each to create a video based on one of the problems included in the MATHCOUNTS School Handbook, published each year and distributed free of charge to every middle school in the country. Each video must teach the solution to the selected math problem as well as demonstrate the real-world application of the math concept used in the problem.