What is STEM?
STEM education focuses on improving students' skills and knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Many STEM-field businesses have pointed out that they have a hard time filling specialized jobs because of a lack of qualified applicants. In response, many education systems have sought to reformat their learning to prepare students for these particularly challenging career choices. For several years, this has been seen as the cornerstone in reviving the American education system and making our students competitive on the world stage once more. Many education reformers point to this rigorous educational format as a panacea for many of the ills that currently plague schools.
High-level politicians and luminaries throughout the education world have emphasized the need for STEM-based education. This emphasis can even be felt at home here in North Carolina's public schools as state and local officials continually emphasize the need for leadership in tomorrow's STEM fields.
How exactly does STEM education work?
STEM education refocuses learning by removing emphasis from more "typical" school subjects such as English, history, social studies, and the arts. While these subjects are not entirely removed, the focus is on preparing students for industries where these knowledge areas are not as important.
Adding in the Arts
Many people may write off the arts as a waste of time when students could be learning something more valuable. However, what could be more valuable in the modern, information-driven world than a rising workforce that can think creatively and solve problems in new and different ways? The arts aren't about just playing beautiful music or painting pretty pictures. Instead, these subjects teach valuable life skills that help students synthesize their learning. The arts teach creativity and discipline, two traits that can combine with wider STEM knowledge to produce untold new creative developments. This advocacy to reincorporate the arts into STEM learning is known as STEAM education.
Further, when the arts are used as a method of instruction, it encourages students to think in a non-linear fashion. Because most real-world problems have multiple possible correct answers and numerous ways of arriving at a solution, STEAM education has a better resemblance to real world problem-solving strategies than do more traditional approaches to primary and secondary schooling.
In addition, many educators emphasize using arts in STEM education because it encourages collaboration when students work in groups. Teachers point out that working well in a group is a necessary part of getting any project done in most STEM fields. Therefore, teaching innovation through collaboration has become a necessary part of STEAM education.
From STEM to STEAM
Many people are advocating for a greater inclusion of the arts in STEM education around the globe. That effort became stronger in North Carolina around July 15-16, 2013, when local artist and former professor Lee Baumgarten hosted the first ever STEM2STEAM: Innovations and Creativity Workshop. Topics covered included creative problem solving, experiential learning and new thinking styles.
The conference featured a variety of speakers, including arts consultant and advocate Morenga Hunt, education author and advoctate Roderic Brame, author Elda Franklin, president of Livingston and Haven Clifton Vann, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison. The free event focused on discussion between educators, business leaders, politicians, and the general public on how best to educate students in a STEM to STEAM environment. By opening the conference to the entire community, the STEM2STEAM organizers hoped to emphasize the necessity of involving everyone in making this needed transition to arts-inclusion in STEM learning.
The main goal of the conference is to shift education away from the factory/industry-centric methodology that it developed in the early 20th century. "A hundred years ago we devised a school system where you sit in rows. You don't ask questions. You listen and learn and memorize," Baumgarten said. "That's the exact structure we needed in industry at that time." Instead, Baumgarten emphasized, students should be taught how to think creatively to solve problems in their own ways.
Additionally, STEM2STEAM wants to help remove the stigma of failure from education. In many of today's schools, students avoid trying new things or reaching too far because they are afraid of poor grades that could harm their GPAs and long-term economic fortunes. This fear touches every student from elementary school through college, creating a student body terrified to innovate. By replacing this emphasis on rote learning with an emphasis on problem solving that comes naturally to STEAM education, Baumgarten and the STEM2STEAM conference hope to encourage students to develop problem solving skills, applied arts talents, open-minded imagination and innovative mindsets in all students.
Although there is obviously a long way to go before STEM education fully embraces the art and starts to go full STEAM ahead, the STEM2STEAM conference is another positive step in that direction. By continuing to leverage the desire for better change and a more creative workforce, education reformers, teachers, and politicians can help mold the workforce of tomorrow into engineering and design superstars. After all, society is always going to need scientists, inventors, engineers, and builders. We owe it to ourselves to make them the best informed and most creative they can possibly be.