From social media feeds to education websites, it appears that STEAM is the hot education acronym. While many are attempting to join in on this latest ‘trend’ it is important to examine the different components of STEAM and how to design a lesson that truly integrates STEM with the arts.
Art supplements math and science This is a common misconception many have about STEAM, that art is a supplement to STEM. The belief that by adding an art project to a STEM lesson satisfies the STEAM requirement. This thinking completely devalues the power of STEAM in a student’s learning experience. All students have an appreciation for the arts regardless of age. There are those that are into coordinated movement required for a sport, melodic sounds in their favorite song, appealing visuals in a video game, and captivating text in their beloved fictional book that brings imaginary worlds to life. Rather than simply adding stylized construction paper to a science project, STEAM is about using the arts to make STEM creative and relatable and using STEM to bring the arts to life.
Integrate Educators should see that the arts are integral in STEM. Design problem-based projects that require students to utilize creative thinking and design skills to develop solutions to these problems. Incorporate a “user” element that requires students to think about the way people would interact with their solutions. Require students to think from the perspective of the “user” to invoke empathy and sensitivity. In a unit we developed translating a history lesson on the Mayflower into a STEM project, we had the students think about how they would redesign the Mayflower, given the constraints on material and physical space on the Mayflower to better suit the large number of pilgrim passengers. In a history lesson, students do not automatically “feel” the difficulty the pilgrims endured sailing on the Mayflower and living on the Mayflower during the several winter months after reaching land. A design thinking element helped provide perspective to their hardship. Lessons are more impactful if they integrate what the students already know, currently learning and/or what they love. Using an associative thinking strategy, we are able to develop lessons that naturally keep the students engaged. For example, using an English class lesson on Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, we examined how elements of the story related to other subjects, this was easy with History and the Arts, but we also examined Math and Science. One STEM lesson we developed focused on the sleeping potion and poison. We developed a lesson using the text to estimate the onset of action and half life for the sleeping potion taken by Juliet and used this information to calculate the time that passed from Juliet’s ingestion of the sleeping potion to her discovery by Romeo, and his demise. We had a discussion on real examples of sleeping potions and poisons and the chemistry of poisons and their modes of action in the body. We completed the lesson with students assuming the role of Romeo as a forensic toxicologist and conducted drug spot/color test experiments. Students assumed the role of Romeo testing Juliet’s ‘poison’ and imagined an alternate ending if he had this chemistry background. An alternative would be assuming the role of Juliet as the forensic toxicologist to identify the type of poison used by Romeo. If we collaborate and create units such as plays by William Shakespeare, integrating different subjects, the possibilities for lessons that are creative, innovative and truly engaging are endless.
Immerse An integral component to STEAM is play. As STEAM is becoming a larger picture of education, the primary focus has been on visual arts and design, but neglects the importance of the performing arts. Though the performing arts might not appear to be easily incorporated with a STEM lesson, we have discovered that role playing and improvisation pairs nicely with STEM. We use an immersive narration approach, where students are transported to a different world. Students are then immersed in this world through role playing by instructors, an underpinning storyline in the lesson and some minor scenic design. In a dystopian zombie filled world, students use NERF bow and arrows to defeat zombies after incorrectly calculating the time it took to find and collect supplies. In a magical world, students cast spells using wands that light up with an LED, battery and button. We provide a physical and mental environment for the students to make-believe that they are a character in this different world. Using this approach, students are invested in each lesson, because the math problems have context, i.e. do I have enough time to search for food before the zombies arrive and is of the utmost importance because it has to do with their survival. Science experiments are not only hands-on but the experiments has an additional meaning of developing skills to become a better witch or wizard. Though real-world application is often touted as the solution to meaningless math and science lessons, oftentimes the real-world application is not relevant to the lives of our students. A parking lot area problem used in a math lesson has little relevance to students that don’t even drive. Through creating an environment, even fictional ones, where students are immersed and has ownership of the outcome, they become more invested in learning.
Innovate Far too often students conduct science experiments with predetermined results and the main learning is the vocabulary and content associated with the lesson. To lead students to become innovators, we must inculcate in students to go beyond the memorization of vocabulary and content by emphasizing “now that you know this, what can you do with it.” This could lead into experiments and projects that do not have desired results. Design lessons where students have a goal but not one answer and ensure the STEM lesson is relevant to the context of the overall unit. In one engineering challenge, groups were designing a net to capture magical creatures that were running rampant in a magical town. We provided select items and groups created traps and nets with a small number of the select items. Throughout the lesson the magical creatures would change shape and size and groups were given opportunities to modify their design. The traps and nets that the groups developed were all different even though they all started off with potentially the same starting and modifying materials. In addition, our students did not think of this as a random engineering challenge, but a mission they wanted to accomplish. In this problem-based lesson, students focused on the process of development as opposed to solely on their product as they were given a select number of opportunities to modify their design.
Inspire Inspire students to take ownership of their learning. Our role as instructors is not to give all of the answers, but to provide students with the framework to discover the answers. Ensure that the lesson is relevant and engaging to prompt students to want to discover what is missing. Inquiry is a vital component in inspiring students to own their learning. Students should be the ones asking questions and developing methods to find the answers on their own and/or through the instructor’s guidance. For example, after a complex math challenge in our zombie apocalypse unit, groups that calculated the scenario incorrectly would work on their own without any prompting from us to see where they went wrong in their problem-solving. They were invested because their ‘survival’ during the zombie apocalypse depended on successfully completing each challenge. To develop lessons that are relevant and truly engaging, collaboration among teachers is imperative. In the Medici Effect, Frans Johansson states that innovation occurs at the intersection of multiple disciplines. Through interdisciplinary collaboration we are able to develop lessons that challenge how students see individual subjects. These interdisciplinary lessons not only enable students to tap into their imagination, but also enable teachers to come up with creative and engaging lessons. Through our own combination of disparate concepts, we brought a history lesson on ancient Egypt and Cleopatra to life using spa chemistry. We compared Cleopatra’s beauty products to modern products and even recreated Cleopatra’s perfume making a history lesson on ancient Egypt tangible and interactive. This lessons came about because as instructors from different disciplines, we were given time to collaborate and brainstorm different lesson ideas. Providing teachers time and opportunities to work with different disciplines is key to developing great STEAM lessons; thus fostering creativity and innovation in our children.