STEAM takes shape at Drexel ExCITe Center

Dr. Gaël McGill, Keynote Speaker at #STEAMedu

Dr. Gaël McGill, Keynote Speaker at #STEAMedu

After an exhilarating day of presentations and discussions on STEAM, I felt I had to share my notes.  Dr. Youngmoo Kim, the Director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, has long been a proponent of the addition of the A (Arts) in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  He and his program manager, Kara Lindstrom assembled a group of compelling speakers for this STEAM Education Workshop.  Here are some notes:

Dr. Nancy Songer, Dean of the School of Education at Drexel University.
Steve Jobs is often seen as a visionary at the intersection of technology and design.  The first nod to Mr. Jobs came by way of the first speaker as she described three projects she completed with Middle School aged children in which she applied her idea of “Strategic Simplification.”  By designing visually compelling materials, younger students are presented with complex ideas in a curriculum that is paced so students can work with the data.  This idea would become a theme for the workshop as presenters gave ways to present real data to students so they have a chance to wrestle with the complexity.

Professor Genevieve Dion, the Director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab
Ms. Dion is an expert on wearable technologies and she spoke of her experience in the fashion world and her groundbreaking work at the ExCITe Center.  She emphasized the importance of weaving a wearable device rather than attaching sensors and other devices to clothing.  Her advice to students who come from the Arts into technology was to “learn to speak the language of the engineer” in order to enable collaboration.

Dr. Brian Smith, Professor of Learning Technologies
Dr. Smith identified the fearlessness and risk taking that artists bring to their work as a important component of STEAM studies.  He also outlined how the teaching method that art educators employ in their studios could be used as a model for other disciplines.  He quoted Dr. Margaret Honey (New York Hall of Science) that STEAM is “not about slapping arts into STEM but about shifting how we think about learning.”  He mentioned the book, “Studio Thinking” as a reference to how to incorporate the studio approach to non-Arts classes (

Dr. Youngmoo Kim, Director, ExCITe Center at Drexel University
Dr. Kim began with an overview of the work of the ExCITe Center and it is formidable-robots making music, music apps, interactive performances and new or enhanced instruments.  His work with teenagers in a summer music technology class could also be a primer for any music educator who is interested in STEAM (how about a STEAM workshop for music educators?).  In this class, students design, code, assemble and perform and many are encouraged to continue studying music and other STEAM subjects.

Dr. Gaël McGill, Founder & CEO, Digizyme Inc. and Director of Molecular Visualization, Harvard Medical School
Wow!  After hearing E.O. Wilson speak this summer about his iBook “Life on Earth,” I wondered who created the great visualizations in the ibook since they seemed to fulfill the potential of using multimedia as a rich learning tool (the future of the book!).  It was a real treat hearing about the concepts behind the work of Dr Gael McGill and his company Digizyme, the creators of these interactives.  At first Dr. McGill spoke about the 500 widgets they created for the book, but more importantly for this workshop, he outlined how visualization can be used “as a powerful strategy to meet instructional and assessment challenges in STEM education.”   Visualizations can take many different forms from animation to drawing but one thing is clear, when used in a the classroom, this method can pinpoint gaps in student learning.  Dr. McGill also went over how critiquing a visualization can promote the critical thinking questions that lead to learning.  For example, by having students become “Viz critics” they can look at a visualization and question the use of color and design and how to make a visualization communicate the concept.  He talked about mental models that students create about key concepts and about using visualization to test these models.

Dr. McGill then spoke about visual literacy and training students to tell a story visually through storyboarding.  He cited the work of Felice Frankel and the use of metaphors in “Picturing to Learn.” (video-  This is rich territory for those (like me) wrestling with how to connect the visual literacy skills students learn in Art classes to their non-Arts classes.

One last resource given was the plug in for Maya created by Digizyme called Molecular Maya  ( which allows students to animate molecular structures in Maya.

In recap the “process of visualization is process of knowledge integration” and a “way to make missing data more obvious” which “puts students in touch with data.”


(My apologies to two other speakers,  Dr. Katherine Kuchenbecker, Undergraduate Curriculum Chair, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, at University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Frank Lee, Director, Entrepreneurial Game Studio.  Technical issues prevented my note taking at this point.)

After the discussions that followed these speakers, my head was spinning with all of the possibilities.  When thinking about the integration of STEAM subjects, I was reminded how students often do this on their own.  For example, a student who studies guitar rarely has an opportunity to combine his/her musical knowledge with his/her other subjects, but will build a guitar in the Engineering Lab when given the opportunity.   Dr. McGill asked “what are the obstacles?” and I would answer that we (teachers) don’t allow students to be expansive.  These sort of workshops certainly help lower the divisions between departmental silos but teachers and administrators still need to find new methods to facilitate learning across multiple disciplines.  Dr. McGill emphasized the importance of the content expert and I feel that teachers often feel that collaboration lessens the importance of content knowledge.  However,this workshop provided many examples of professionals that are innovating at the edges of their disciplines like Dr. McGill who is equally gifted in molecular biology and visual art.  Because of his abilities, he is able to communicate his knowledge in transformative ways.  I suspect our students have multiple abilities that we do not come close to encouraging.

About efjcomposer

Composer/New Media Designer/Educator
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