I attended my first EdCamp (http://edcampsteam.org/) this week in New Brunswick, NJ and was excited to participate in a conference devoted to STEAM topics. For my work at SCH Academy and as a musician, I am trying to define the elements that make a successful STEAM collaboration for Arts educators. Also, I often need to justify why the effort is important for Arts faculty and what is gained by adding the Arts to STEM for students.
In my first session, “Discussing the A in STEAM” we shared our experiences and practical information about scheduling and the difficulties of collaborating across disciplines. However, what struck me most was the range of involvement non-Arts teachers had with Arts teachers. There are some districts that have one Art teacher for hundreds of students. This makes collaboration almost impossible but more importantly, the A in STEAM gets interpreted without the input of an Arts educator. Another educator explained that the Art teacher is often “low on the totem pole-like PE” (ouch!) and because of this, Art teachers may really enjoy being part of the conversation. This explains why one teacher listed coloring a periodic table as an example of STEAM in a later session. This is not to say that there weren’t great lessons discussed and demonstrated, like the DIYability (http://www.diyability.org/) workshop rewiring old electronic toys, the music technology projects from Drexel’s Excite Center and using MINECRAFT in education (and many more I didn’t have a chance to experience), BUT when is the Arts a real part of STEAM?
Recently, my colleague Karen Kolkka brought a project prepared by Bare Conductive (http://www.bareconductive.com/) to my summer camp because she was excited about the use of electronically conductive paint to create circuits. My campers (ages 10-12) complained a little about the small circuits but they were happy with the results and their parents were thrilled with their light houses (http://www.bareconductive.com/bare-house-kit). When Karen and I had a chance to discuss this later, we both agreed that this was the beginning of a STEAM project since some basic skills were learned but that in order to become a true Arts project, students would need to use these skills to design and build an original structure.
I think the value of adding the Arts to STEM subjects is the addition of disciplines (both music and art) that have a tradition of using materials to create something original that considers aesthetics and design. This takes time. Time to learn the materials, time to learn design principles, time to understand how to choose from the infinity of ideas, and time to study the tradition of original artistic thinkers. For Arts educators, collaborating with STEM disciplines will mean learning new materials and understanding the learning objectives of other disciplines. For non-Arts educators it will mean understanding how the Arts are taught and assessed (using art supplies does not equal STEAM).
I believe that we are at the beginning of a great collaboration that will combine subjects in powerful ways for students. The Arts have a vital role to play in STEAM, and in many cases, the collaboration is a means to become relevant in those schools that have cut Arts to the bare minimum. More importantly, our students need the agility of original thought that the Arts teach which is incredibly important with the national shift toward the importance of STEM subjects. A lot of listening and sharing of ideas needs to happen and this Edcamp was a great start.