UB Op-ed: Transforming STEM into STEAM

By: | April 16, 2019

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and Senior Partner in the law firm of Samels Associates.

Over the past six months, we have witnessed a series of STEAM grant research initiatives bringing together several foundations, nonprofit organizations and other funding agencies to focus on students who exhibit a keen interest and aptitude in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and, importantly, music, dance, theater, and other fine, visual and performing arts.

What these career pathways share in common is the creation of new kinds of multi-disciplinary academic linkages to inter-professional STEAM practices and careers. Just look at the sparkle in the eyes of a young scientist who bows for applause after her cello recital and you realize the influence of music extends beyond the arts. Indeed, joy of music and magic of musical theater can lead to an exploration of engineering and technology career pathways– sometimes behind the scenes that actually make it happen.

A 2018 Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education article entitled, “STEAM: Using the Arts to Train Well-Rounded and Creative Scientists” concluded: “Drawing fosters close observation, helps elicit relationships between function and form, and can serve as a model realm for problem-solving. Manipulative visual arts such as sketching, photography, and origami have been proposed as effective cross-training for spatial intelligence, which is a crucial attribute of successful STEM professionals.”

We now know that there is a significant cognitive correlation between STEM and STEAM students engaged in the fine, visual and performing arts. We recognize that STEAM students are typically capable of measurable success in college and in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Indeed, STEAM projects uniquely go beyond multidisciplinary linkages, aspiring mathematicians who dream of becoming musicologists, digital sound technologists and broadcast engineers.

We learned from elementary education specialists that even preschool teachers need both STEM and music education in their classrooms. In fact, clinical evidence indicates a greater impact through exposure to toddlers, rather than waiting for them to find themselves in high school science classes without the experience and appreciation of the arts.

Significantly, urban education experiments have tracked the impact of the arts in Turnaround Schools – struggling schools whose students are the beneficiaries of donated musical instruments and licensing rights. The bottom line is that when the Arts are incorporated in the curriculum, overall academic performance excels.

Early childhood development data substantiates the significant effect on left brain thinking of introducing the Arts into Science. Tomorrow’s Facebook and other social media smartcollar workers will bring art, technology and science together with new codes that embrace the Arts and computer engineering.

Rhode Island School of Design was an early pioneer in transforming STEM into STEAM — providing a real live art and design learning experiment for inspiring creative change agents immersed in their art and design disciplines, and engaged in outside-the-box thinking and ingenuity, yet discipline and resilience through studio practice and the pressure of performance arts.

Respected colleagues like Ricardo Azizz, State University of New York Chief Officer of Academic Health and Hospital Affairs shared this wisdom:

Because the scientist-artist is not an anomaly – to the contrary, from Leonardo DaVinci (visual and dramatic arts), to Samuel Morse (painter), to Santiago Ramón y Cajal and many others, some dedicated artists, others practiced amateurs — it is clear that science and engineering creativity is often married to the pursuit of artistic interests. It is not surprising to me having been raised in a household where my father, a theoretical physicist was also a quite competent painter, and my mother (a cultural anthropologist), was a more than competent writer.

At the end of the day, STEAM attracts experiential and maker learning students who learn best by doing, hands-on activities — connecting the world of learning and earning. Significantly, STEAM produces engagement, fun, the “wow” factor and the kind of exploration and discovery that helps students develop important skills, discover their passion, and achieve lifelong career goals.

STEAM encourages intelligent risk- taking and principled decision-making. STEAM fosters a collaborative spirit and team work — tearing down silos and creating an appreciation for the rich sound of an orchestra, rather than just solos.

Look across the architectural design and cityscape industries and you will witness a powerful connectivity between today’s urban designers and creative STEAM agents. Other cutting-edge product research and development projects range from assistive technologies to human genome discoveries to robotics, photonics, laser optics and artificial intelligence. Without creativity, there would just be science and no breakthrough discoveries.

UCLA education researchers have made contributions to measuring the impact of STEAM. Coordinating the right and left sides of the brain produces powerful synergies when passion for one’s art combines with the rigorous discipline of science and mathematics.

At the UCLA Lab School, elementary students who engage in role-play learn this kind of fun stimulates imagination, ingenuity and resourcefulness. By way of illustrative example, students who engage in project based learning have the opportunity to make original contributions to robotics, artificial intelligence and new technologies.

Anyone who doubts this multi-faceted value of design learning should ask 3D construction printing designers, Cityscape Architects, biogenetic engineers, and gaming and animation designers – powerful metaphors for inquiry-based applied learning outside the box.

Maynard Massachusetts Public Schools Superintendent Robert Gerardi put it nicely this way:

Technology and the Arts are the focus of my career and passion. Having started my career as a technology teacher, I am an ardent supporter of STEM. Having a visual arts passion, I personally know the combined power harnessed through STEAM. STEM and STEAM are not mutually exclusive. Touring the Nashville Software School, I learned that they recruit musicians. Musicians understand the concept of looping, which is common in coding, and the relationship of practice, persistence, and performance. In my current school district, we track the relationship between student performance and our robust music programs. There is a high correlation between the Arts and academic achievement.

True genius is the ability to combine knowledge with creativity.
Our schools have always respected knowledge. Given the challenges of our time, the need to foster creativity and innovation becomes ever more compelling.

There is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all.
Without creativity, there would be no progress.
Edward de Bono

James E. Samels is President and CEO of The Education Alliance and Senior Partner in the law firm of Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law