Arts Integration

Full STEAM Ahead: Why Arts Are Essential in a STEM Education

Educators can bring creative people into STEM fields by showing students the creativity in what they're doing and how it lets them explore their own creative interests.
February 1, 2016
photo of a boy with dirt project
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In December of 2015, Old Navy was caught up in a controversy over a tee shirt design in which the word "Artist" was crossed out and replaced with either "Astronaut" or "President." The internet was full of artists and scientists sharing their stories about how art was actually an important part of their lives. There was even a photo of former President George Bush, now an aspiring artist, making its rounds. In fact, NASA even has a page dedicated to astronauts turned artists.

An Obvious Connection

In 2006, Georgette Yakman, a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, developed a framework that took the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) acronym one step further. Her STEAM framework incorporated the arts into the traditional STEM curricular areas. Yakman, who holds a BS in Clothing and Textiles, has also worked as a middle and high school engineering and technology teacher and was named NCTC's STEM Teacher of the Year in 2009. It's no wonder that, for her, the connection was obvious.

The connection is also obvious for anyone who has ever worked in any traditional STEM career. Everyone from software engineers and aerospace technicians to biotechnical engineers, professional mathematicians, and laboratory scientists knows that building great things and solving real problems requires a measure of creativity. More and more, professional artists themselves are incorporating technological tools and scientific processes to their art.

STEM education is not merely a focus on four core classes or an increased focus on any individual letter in the acronym. STEM is the marrying and undeniable connection between science, technology, engineering and math. When I think of STEM education, I think of the biochem labs that our Juniors wrote using charts and diagrams of their own data gathered through experimentation and their own questions. I think of the Rube Goldberg machines built by engineering students in our makerspace, and I imagine the classroom furniture and prototypes being built by the students in my own Art and Tech elective class, projects that start with 3D models and prototypes and end in functional designs that are in use throughout the school.

Where's the Art?

Math is the string that holds all of these projects together: data analysis and presentation, measuring and angles. Students interpret their scientific findings through their data visualization, and they are able to work through real-life math problems while troubleshooting a design. If we're teaching STEM subjects in isolation, and if we're still teaching STEM from a textbook or through exams, then we're not really teaching STEM. True STE(A)M education means that students are creating, applying, and incorporating mathematics and at least one of the other content areas into their work. Not every project is going to include every letter in STEM, but ideally, they should allow for the integration of at least two of them. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to complete a quality project without exploring at least two of the letters.

In the STEM examples that I described above, it's easy to pick out the "A," even if it's not explicit. Technical writing is a skill -- a hard one at that. Writing a cohesive lab report that incorporates and effectively and correctly analyzes data requires strong technical writing. In many fields, writing is considered an art, a talent that is considered creative expression, even if the writing in question is a nonfiction work. Creating a successful Rube Goldberg machine goes way beyond just having the machine "work." The best Rube Goldberg machines are whimsical and fun to watch. This aspect of such feats of mechanical engineering requires creativity, and the results can be considered art in and of themselves. As for the furniture, these works require thoughtful and practical mechanical design as well as functional design. Students researched actual needs in our building and then developed their designs based on these real-world needs and their own creative flair.

If we are teaching STEM, we are also inherently teaching the arts. For those students who may not be motivated by the math, the science, or even the technology, it may be the creative piece that gives them the spark they need to truly engage. As educators -- and, indeed, as a society -- we need creative people in STEM fields. And if we're not showing students the creativity in what they're doing and how it allows them to explore their own creative interests, then we're not giving them the full picture of what it means to work in a STEM field.

Please tell us about your experiences integrating the arts into STEM subjects.