Call it STEAM not STEM – by Jerry Isdale

Pt 646

Call it STEAM not STEM – by Jerry Isdale. Jerry has been pioneering a call to makers all the way out in Hawaii – do we need to call STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) something a little more? Here comes STEAM!

First thing I’d do is call it STEAM and explicitly include ART in the program.

STEM by itself is sterile and will not reproduce well.

There is only a small subset of humanity that will find math/engineering/sci-tech interesting and exciting by itself (and those may not get along with rest of humanity very well, being too geeky and often lacking social skills).

Show kids the fun art side to catch their interest and creativity. Show them (have them do) projects that do fun things using tech and then slip the harder stuff in as the path to get to fun stuff.

The competitions & challenges are one way to motivate/direct kids but my (limited, non-educator, just mentor) experience is that it also alienates some kids – or those that are motivated will alienate those that are not as excited by the competitive nature. Art projects attract a whole different crowd. Then you can have an Art & Tech mini-makerfaire to show off and share the results.

hmm, maybe we need a national STEAM Art & Tech competition ala the science fair.

Read more in our comments and on Maui Makers. Also check out Kevin’s open letter.

We have an art category that’s the most trafficked section of Adafruit at the moment. Phil is our resident artist (sketchbook scans above) – “art” is important – but should it be part of “STEM”? Maybe, discuss in the comments!

We think good engineering is art and they do hand-in-hand – despite what we’ve heard 🙂

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  1. There has been rumblings of adding the A in the STEM education outreach community for about a year now. So far it has seen more opposition then support, and I tend to agree with the majority. I’ve only heard the argument come from those with a vested interest in the A wanting to jump on the rapidly increasing speed STEM train.

    I almost find Jerry’s comment insulting.

    "There is only a small subset of humanity that will find math/engineering/sci-tech interesting and exciting by itself (and those may not get along with rest of humanity very well, being too geeky and often lacking social skills)."

    I’ve been striving for over two years to show kids how cool STEM is by taking my main outreach program to local elementary schools and it’s been working. We hear back from the teachers a year later letting us know the kids still are asking questions about the experiments they saw. To say that only a small subset of society finds STEM exciting sounds like it’s coming from someone not on the front lines of education; as I see first hand the converse is true. To further say that only those that do find STEM exciting have social disabilities is only perpetuating a false stereotype that is decades old. I’d like Jerry to come meet the High School Robotics team I’m mentoring this year for the FIRST competition.

    The other argument I hear for adding the A is basically using Arts to ‘bait’ kids to see something in STEM. I feel like this is deceiving. I’d rather see the kids come to STEM because they saw something cool/interesting/unbelievable in something STEM related itself. Not because of a bait and switch. This will only increase the STEM dropout rate in colleges. I’m upfront when I tell kids STEM is hard; but the rewards make it worth it.

    I have no problem with programs that try to infuse Art with science. It’s a good combination and produces some amazing stuff. But STEM is about promoting the Sciences. Art has been cool and popular for ages. STEM has not. There is no ‘Revenge of the Artists’ like there has been for nerds. We have finally started to bring the sciences into the limelight, the whole purpose STEM was coined in the first place.

    The sciences need to remain separated in the schools from the other areas of education or risk becoming lost in the noise and sink back to the horribly inadequate levels they once where. I’m not saying don’t mix art and science in the classroom. What I am saying is please don’t turn my science fair into an art gallery. Schools have had well established art programs forever, second only to athletic programs. STEM in schools has been duly lacking, and that’s what I’m fighting.

  2. Aside from the higher levels of art & art appreciation, its surprising that a typical engineering degree has a course or two on technical writing, but not on fundamental drawing, photography and illustration skills. These are easily just as important for overall communication.

    These days, video production should probably be there as well.

  3. to be honest, i dont see such a great difference in tech- or scientific tinkering and art. tinkering or making art are just two ways of calling the same thing: inventing sth. for the good of it. maybe sth useful comes out of it and most time its just the feeling that there are possibilities for good things.

    there might be a difference to hard science and engineering but even these need from time to tie tinkered stuff to inspire them.

    im fine with also taking "art" into the equation for people seeing what making & engineering can also be. as long as it comes clear that science, tech, engineering, math can be art not just be with it. because sometimes i get the feeling that some people believing in this weird art religion seem to ignore that artists, engineers and mathematicians happened to be the same people some time ago…

    just take a look at vi hart or markus kayser or the stuff people at the ars electronica do or tons of stuff on thingiverse,, maker fairs and so on and so on. its just all the same: art is making. making is art. and all making is based on clear thinking, which is tadaa scientific thinking.

  4. Bill Earl - Adafruit Support

    With all due respect Bill Porter, I take issue with your statement:

    "The sciences need to remain separated in the schools from the other areas of education or risk becoming lost in the noise and sink back to the horribly inadequate levels they once where."

    I fought against this segregationist idea through my entire time in college. I had to change schools and majors several times in order to be allowed to take the classes I wanted to take. (The ‘real’ classes – not the dumbed down ‘programming for poets’ or ‘art for non-majors’ classes).

    I think we should be knocking down those walls and not reinforcing them. Yes, STEM is cool. But the best of STEM is STEAMy.

    I think Gau sums it up nicely.

  5. this is a GREAT discussion folks, keep it going!

  6. @ Bill Earl,

    I don’t think you read my whole comment, namely “I’m not saying don’t mix art and science in the classroom.” I’m saying lets not lose the government’s focus on increasing funding to STEM education.

    There’s a local elementary school that has about 1200 kids. The school has always had an Art room(2 in fact), that was stocked with standard art supplies and a teacher who could teach it. Three years ago they had no ‘Science’ room. In fact, the only piece of science equipment they had was 1 (just one!) microscope for the whole school, and that’s it.

    Thanks to the federal push to increase STEM, the school now has a ‘Science’ room filled with lego robotics kits, more microscopes, lab test gear and a teacher who can teach science. Bush started the STEM acronym in the legislation designed to increase focus on STEM related education. By adding more to that focus, the net effect on just the sciences will go down.

    I believe art and sciences mix quite well. In fact I’m trying to put together a e-textiles class for a local science museum. But when my coworker and I go to capital hill for the next NDEP (National Defense Education Program) conference, we will be fighting to get more funding for STEM and only STEM as it is still the area of most need in our school district.

    As long as teachers don’t use Art to bait and switch I fully support classes that combine the two.

    On a side note, what colleges did you go to? I went to a state college, and as long as you could pay, you could take any classes you wanted outside of your major, with restrictions on prerequisites for standard progression. I was an engineering major, but took several classes in meteorology, CS, physics and theater. None were “not for majors” type classes.

  7. Bill – i dont seek to insult smart folks, other than to get em to move sometimes.
    I’m a FIRST mentor too, and I’d like to see your group. With a lotta luck and skill maybe we’ll see each other at the Nationals. I’ll save most of my critique of that and other competitions for later. I started teaching arduinos to my crew, many of whom really arent interested in the competitions.

    What were the demos (hands on?) that you showed to elementary kids? How much STEAM vs STEM?

    One issue I’m confronting here is “Schools have had well established art programs forever, second only to athletic programs”. The last 10+yrs the art/music/shop programs have been downsized drastically and eliminated in many middle/high schools. I’m not for the inpenetratable art religion or crude finger painting – but all the good projects I’ve ever worked had good artistic aspects & talent (other people) deeply involved. As for gym class – well i skipped that myself when I could. Later I got my black belt (TKD) and ran marathons.

    Good writing, drawing, art/music appreciation should be required for techies. We need to be able to communicate with rest of humanity, lest we become a segregated hitech priesthood.

    ok back to my Art project – which relies heavily on Bill’s great little EasyTransfer library and AdaFruit RGB LED Strips… and lots of other tech stuff.

  8. As a former educator, and someone who is very passionate about educating, I thought the STEM initiative was a great change in how things were being done in schools. Ultimately, though, I left education for engineering because it was not stimulating enough for me. For me, I knew that I had the ability to do engineering, and that there we plenty of educators that could fill my position who may not want to do engineering. Students are not learning that this is the reality of the work world.

    Many students are being sold the bottom rung of the STEM ladder and the hope is that they will choose to climb to the top. The reality is that many won’t. So then we end up with an over saturation of students with a background in the traditionally less difficult engineering and science fields. For example, when I started college, illinois was begging for physics teachers. Four years later, it was difficult to find a job. The market had been saturated with students who sought the lesser difficult science path, where one only needs good teaching skills and a high school science background. Many have more, despite not using the quantum physics for regular level physics classes.

    My point is, STEM is important because we need to be producing high quality STEM people. While art is great for well rounded people, it is not going to generate the next moon landing. The people that put us on the moon were the nerds with "limited social skills." And there was still art happening in America at the same time. And many engineers, like myself, still have a passion about more than just engineering (I make music). We have music and art initiatives. There is no shortage of artists and musicians in the world. Maybe if those kids in high school had some STEM exposure, they would have done more with their art passion than what was traditionally done.

    And about the notion that STEM types are socially awkward- this is the most counterproductive attitude toward the STEM movement. That is what keeps young bright girls from pursuing engineering, thinking that it is only for nerdy boys. Girls are much more well rounded in terms of intellect and social-emotional intelligence. If you make them think that they will be surrounded by mean evil robotic people in engineering, then they definitely won’t want to go there.

  9. Bill Earl - Adafruit Support

    @Bill Porter

    I did read the whole comment and it was somewhat tempered by the rest of that paragraph. But I had a hard time with the wording of the first half of that one sentence:

    “The sciences need to remain separated in the schools from the other areas of education…”

    We do need to promote STEM – maybe even over and above some less neglected area. But we need to mainstream STEM in the schools, not in any way separate it from the other subjects.

    I don’t believe in the ‘bait & switch’ approach either. It is not a matter of luring students from one discipline to another. It is more a matter of encouraging the kind of cross-disciplinary thinking that will raise the next generation of technological innovators.

    For my part, I have personally sponsored and coached an FLL team for three years now, and mentored other coaches that are starting new teams.

    As for my educational experiences: I attended several private institutions – as well as several schools in the SUNY system. I agree that the state schools were generally more flexible. In the end, both my undergraduate (BFA) and graduate (MS) degrees were from state institutions.

  10. Jerry, my main contact with the local schools is through this program:

    We are using a medium of art (theater) but what we show the kids is STEM. They don’t walk away talking about my acting skills (or lack there of), but the cool demonstrations they saw.

    I will easily admit I’m not qualified to judge art programs at schools. But even with my poor ability to judge, I knew having dedicated art rooms but only a single microscope for the whole school was a gross imbalance of education. The STEM movement has helped correct that.

    I think a main disconnect I am having with Bill E. and you is what STEM refers to. STEM was coined to name legislation and new government policies/programs that promoted education in the four fields. Recently that acronym has become popular as a name for anything related to the four fields. As a government employee I still connect the acronym to the government’s policy/programs for education.

    I tried to make that point, thought not clearly when I said “The sciences need to remain separated in the schools from the other areas of education. I’m not saying don’t mix art and science in the classroom." I’d like to keep art out of the government’s programs and policies that are currently funding the much needed change in schools. I’d like to keep it out to minimize the risk of losing focus on the four fields.

    I’d love schools themselves to mix STEM with any subject. Just like teachers usually like to draw parallels between whatever fields they can to correlate the need for diversity.

    You may be reading this thinking "What’s the difference?" and I this may come out as jaded, but I’ve been working for the government for over 3 years now and I quickly learned this is a big difference. Funded for education related programs is decided upon by metrics to the point of insanity. If result can’t be measures quantitatively, it doesn’t get funding. Even programs like the Science Brother whose real impact can never be measured must submit these metrics. The State of Florida currently measures education against a set of metrics called NGSSS (Next Generation Sunshine State Standards). I’ve had to measure our outreach programs against this ruler and it’s a wonder we still have teachers who put up with this at all. But this tangent about the flaws in the education system could go on forever. My point is if we add art to the existing STEM political culture, it greatly risks complicating the system further until the point of failure.

    If art is suffering in education like STEM once was, I’d love to join the rally for support to change that by creating programs to foster better art programs. I’d be the first in line to start programs drawing from STEM and ART (or whatever acronym is created for it) funding that mix the best of both worlds in classrooms.

    But I do not want to tack it on the current successful STEM movement like our congress’s habit of tacking legislation onto unrelated but popular bills in the hops of getting it through. More times then not, it kills the bill. I don’ want to see that happen to STEM.

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