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Distinguished Educators

STEAM – Put a ‘A’ in STEM with the arts!

What is STEAM?

“In this climate of economic uncertainty, America is once again turning to innovation as the way to ensure a prosperous future. Yet innovation remains tightly coupled with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – the STEM subjects. Art + Design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century just as science and technology did in the last century.” (source:, a website hub for the STEAM initiative championed by the Rhode Island School of Design President, John Maeda)

At it’s core, STEAM is about adding Art and Design to the push for STEM in schools and beyond. Research and education policy should recognise the importance of the arts in driving innovation through integrated studies…STEM + Art = STEAM!

The idea of STEAM is not new, but it has currency in an education system that looks to prepare students for an unpredictable, fast-paced future where creativity will be a valuable commodity.

“Kouyate argues that investing in arts education helps Americans compete in the global economy. “Part of what the arts certainly provides is the creativity and innovation, which is really fundamental in how many other countries are looking at success,” said Kouyate. “Actually in the U.S., how we want to measure success is in terms of how to be creative, how to be innovative – the arts bring that specifically into the learning experience.” (Kelly Chen & Imani M. Cheers)

“Early photographer Charles Nègre (1820–1880) is a classic example of the combination of art and science in one creative personality. Having studied painting in Paris and exhibited his work for nearly two decades, he was “struck with astonishment” when he first saw daguerrotypes and immediately began experimenting with the chemistry behind photography, the physics and mathematics of optics, and the engineering principles of both camera design and the architecture he photographed. Also an avid writer, in 1851 he eloquently summed up the notion of STEAM.

“Where science ends, art begins,” Nègre wrote. “When the chemist has prepared the sheet, the artist directs the lens and the three torches of observation, feeling and reasoning guide the study of nature; photography invokes effects that make us dream, simple patterns excite us, powerful and bold silhouettes that surprise and frighten us…. We are now convinced that it is less difficult to reproduce than it is to learn to see nature…. Before, the challenge was to replicate nature; today it is to choose from within nature.”

Negre’s statement is pure poetry, describing the creative process and the need for the thoroughly educated artist to use scientific knowledge in making art. His work demonstrates mastery of the science of photography, along with the fine art of composition, subject choice, sensitivity to light and so forth. Negre’s photographs have a magical immediacy that goes beyond craft. In 1854 he wrote, “being a painter myself, I have kept painters in mind by following my personal tastes…wherever I could dispense with architectural precision I have indulged in the picturesque.”

—Roger Mandle, president of Rhode Island School of Design, 1993–2008

ARTICLE: Why we need to value spacial creativity

An except from Jonathan Wai on Mindshift

MINDSHIFT: At 16, Albert Einstein wrote his first scientific paper titled “The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.”  This was the result of his famous gedanken experiment in which he visually imagined chasing after a light beam.  The insights he gained from this thought experiment led to the development of his theory of special relativity.

At 5, Nikola Tesla informed his father that he would harness the power of water.  What resulted was his creation of a water-powered egg beater. Tesla, who invented the basis of alternating current (AC) power systems, had the unusual talent to imagine his inventions entirely in his mind before building them. He was apparently able to visualize and operate an entire engine in his mind, testing each part to see which one would break first.

Thomas Edison—famous for developing the light bulb and more than 1,000 patents—was fascinated with mechanical objects at an early age.  He once said: “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”  He wasn’t joking. In his lab he wanted to have on hand “a stock of almost every conceivable material.”  According to an 1887 news article, his lab was stocked with chemicals, screws, needles, cords, wires, hair, silk, cocoons, hoofs, shark’s teeth, deer horns, cork, resin, varnish and oil, ostrich feathers, amber, rubber, ores, minerals, and numerous other things.

Einstein imagined with his mind. Tesla imagined with his mind and built with his hands. Edison imagined with both. They all had extraordinary spatial talent—“the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images.”

Spatial thinking “finds meaning in the shape, size, orientation, location, direction or trajectory, of objects,” and their relative positions, and “uses the properties of space as a vehicle for structuring problems, for finding answers, and for expressing solutions.” Spatial skill can be measured through reliable and valid paper-and-pencil tests—primarily ones that assess three dimensional mental visualization and rotation.

But despite the value of these kinds of skills, spatially talented students are, by and large, neglected.

Read Johnathan Wai’s article in full on MindShift.

ARTICLE: Artists and scientists are more alike than different

An excerpt from John Maeda on Scientific American

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN: Art and science. To those who practice neither, they seem like polar opposites, one data-driven, the other driven by emotion. One dominated by technical introverts, the other by expressive eccentrics. For those of us involved in either field today (and many of us have a hand in both), we know that the similarities between how artists and scientists work far outweigh their stereotypical differences. Both are dedicated to asking the big questions placed before us: “What is true? Why does it matter? How can we move society forward?” Both search deeply, and often wanderingly, for these answers. We know that the scientist’s laboratory and the artist’s studio are two of the last places reserved for open-ended inquiry, for failure to be a welcome part of the process, for learning to occur by a continuous feedback loop between thinking and doing.

STEAM and arts integration are crucial in K-12 education, engaging students in the STEM subjects and ensuring that creativity doesn’t fall by the wayside as we chase innovation (how could it?). But it’s also an important idea for research. Artists and designers reformulate the questions that can guide a project, rethinking or redesigning systems at their base. In this vein, RISD is collaborating with the University of Rhode Island and Brown University on new ways to visualize oceanic data to see the impact of climate change on marine life. The work began with a joint course entitled “The Hypothesis Studio,” focusing on the very questions at hand.

Historically, many researchers and organizations have approached our school expecting students and faculty to “design the poster” for their initiatives. It’s true, an artist’s or designer’s expert hand can often make the story of scientific discovery more compelling, results more broadly understandable, and complex choices actionable. DaVinci himself said, “Art is the queen of all sciences communicating knowledge to all the generations of the world. ” At RISD, we just collaborated with Brown University on a studio course dedicated to the concept of Communicating Medical Risk, so that patients could make truly informed decisions.

Artists and scientists tend to approach problems with a similar open-mindedness and inquisitiveness — they both do not fear the unknown, preferring leaps to incremental steps. They make natural partners. With such complementary thinking, there is great potential when they collaborate from the offset, resulting in unexpected outcomes that can be exponentially more valuable than when they work apart. You can see the power of collaboration between artists and scientists in thedecades of advancement in computer graphics at SIGGRAPH; in the latest exhibitions at the Science Gallery in Dublin, or in the midst of groundbreaking scientific results with the Large Hadron Collider and more.

With all that we have to address in the world – warming continents, fluctuating economies, monstrous cities – pursuing scientific questions in tandem with artists and designers may not seem like conventional wisdom. But given the unconventional nature and scale of the problems we face today, there is real value to be gained from collaborations that bridge the best talents we have in both the quantitative and qualitative domains. Artists and designers are the ones who help bring humanity front and center, make us care, and create answers that resonate with our values.

Read John Maeda’s full article on Scientific American.

ARTICLE: MIT Geeks + Thanksgiving = spectacular origami designs

An excerpt from Liz Stinson on Wired

WIRED:  In theory, Origami is simple: Take a sheet of paper, follow the dotted lines and without the use of scissors or glue, you’ve got a paper crane. It stands to reason that if you’re good at following instructions, you’re good at origami.

And that’s true—anyone can fold their way to a simple paper crane. But truly grasping the geometric complexities of that crane? That’s actually pretty brainy stuff.

Origami is arguably more math than art, so it makes sense then that MIT would have a thriving origami scene. Every Sunday, a group of around 20 to 30 people gather on campus to experiment with paper folding techniques. Most recently, the group folded a series of turkeys, cornucopias, pine cones and vegetables to create a gorgeously nerdy Thanksgiving tableau.

If you’re not a math person, it might seem incomprehensible to fashion a turkey out of a single piece of paper, but for Yongquan Lu and his fellow OrigaMIT members, it’s an entertaining challenge. Lu, a sophomore mathematics major at MIT, is the incoming president of of OrigaMIT, and has been practicing paper folding since high school.

“I really love how systematic origami is,” he says. “It’s the perfect combination of math and art.”

The math behind the art

Every origami model you see relies on a blueprint—a series of pre-determined creases that will guide the folder through the process. In the beginning, precise, careful folding can get you pretty far, but if you want to start riffing on designs or creating your own, you have to have more than an elementary grasp on some basic mathematical principles.

“I got more involved in investigating the connections between math and geometry behind it,” he says.

Read the article from Liz Stinson in full at Wired.

A collection of great STEAM resources on TED

Inspiration and integration, for teachers…

Pivot Point: At the crossroads of STEM, STEAM and arts integration

An excerpt from Susan Riley on Edutopia

EDUTOPIA: In the past several years, there has been an understanding that integrated learning is a powerful means of facilitating this shift. In particular, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education has been the most widely advocated means of providing integrated learning. The theory is that by engaging students in STEM studies, they are better prepared to thrive in a global economy based upon the skills found within these subjects. In addition, there has been a movement over the last few years to change STEM to STEAM — adding the arts to the mix — as a way of further integrating creativity and artistic skills and processes across content areas. But there is also the arts integration approach to education, which teaches the selected content in and through the arts. With so many choices for integrated learning, it can paralyze us with fear of taking the next step.

Integration: A Natural Pivot Point
Integration can take many different forms depending upon its interpretation. At its core, however, integration is an avenue for facilitating meaning. When we authentically integrate across content areas, we are connecting, teaching and assessing two or more standards with intention and equity. This means that if we select a Common Core Math Standard and a Science Standard for integration, those standards must both be assessed equitably and be intentionally taught throughout the lesson.

This kind of integration has tremendous potential for those students who are sitting in your classroom waiting for something different — because, suddenly, their learning is no longer located in silos. Instead, students can use their vast array of knowledge to choose a pivot point for moving within and across content areas. Think of this like a basketball court. There are many different areas to connect the ball of knowledge with another type of content. Integration allows the player to plant a foot and connect with whatever strategy works best to get the ball of knowledge across the court.

Player 1: STEM
STEM education has long been lauded for the deep connections it brings to teaching and learning. But STEM is more than just robotics and coding classes. STEM is the intentional connection between two or more of these selected content areas to drive instruction through observation, inquiry and problem solving. STEM education provides a teaching and learning environment that not only teaches the skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but also the means to connect these skills through the core processes of interpretation, communication, analysis and synthesis.

While these four content areas are certainly the foundation of current economic drivers, there are some limitations. True STEM-focused education centers around just those four areas. For instance, it can be difficult to bring STEM into the language arts classroom with integrity. After all, just including and embedding technology does not make something “STEMified.” Instead, it’s how you’re using that technology as a way of facilitating the process for creating meaning within your stated outcomes. Additionally, STEM alone does not take into account the incredible creativity and elements found within the arts, which provide students with tools for developing original ideas and solutions.

Player 2: Arts Integration
Arts integration is another approach which provides students with the opportunity to explore multiple content areas simultaneously. Arts integration engages students in learning any content area in and through the arts. This means that any subject could be taught through the intentional connection to a naturally-aligned arts standard. So students could be reading a Norman Rockwell painting using Common Core ELA Standards and visual arts standards. Additionally, students could explore the scientific method through the elements of music. As with STEM, this approach is not simply an “add-on,” but the authentic connection of standards which are taught together and assessed equitably. Students are able to access skills, talents and processes learned in the arts classroom to explore other topics and develop a personal understanding of both content areas.

Arts integration also has some limitations in its approach — it is easily misinterpreted and can be difficult to move from enhancement to true integration. Too often, the arts are used as enhancement in the lesson (think “shadow boxes”) rather than as a true means of connecting and communicating understanding. Additionally, it must be noted that arts specialists can feel threatened by arts integration as though the arts are being taught exclusively in the classroom and only for the purposes of accomplishing the other standards. Arts integration can happen only if there is a strong arts program and dedicated art classes, since students need these skills and processes prior to engaging in an integrated lesson. Yet without professional development, teachers can often miss this key element.

Player 3: STEAM
STEAM is an approach which uses STEM and the arts to foster learning that is both skill- and process-based. STEAM brings together the critical components of how and what, and laces them together with why. Think of STEAM as teaching through integrated network hubs where information is curated, shared, explored and molded into new ways of seeing and being through collaborative risk taking and creativity. This means that students are using the skills and processes learned in science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics to think deeply, ask non-Googleable questions and solve problems.

STEAM also has cautionary elements. Because this approach includes the blending of skills and processes through creative means, authentic assessment can be difficult. Ensuring that all standards being addressed are taught and assessed with integrity means that assessments must be clear and specific, often with the use of rubrics. Additionally, STEAM lessons can become unwieldy and confusing for students if not developed with a lens of focused purpose.

Whichever path you choose for your classroom, one thing remains certain. Integration is a verb. It is not enough to view learning through one access point — you must actually use the point to pivot yourself and connect your students to their next level of learning. Only then can they change the ball game.

View the article from Susan Riley in full on Edutopia.

STEAM IDEA: Revolution: The Lifecycle of Water Told in a Stop Motion Pop-Up Book

“Revolution is an animated short by photographer Chris Turner, paper engineer Helen Friel and animator Jess Deacon that explores the life cycle of a single drop of water through the pages of an elaborate pop-up book. The book contains nine scenes that were animated using 1,000 photographic stills shot over the course of a year.” Christopher Jobson on Colossal

And, one last clip to fire up the STEAM-ing in your classroom…


If you liked this post, you might also enjoy the Global Search for Education: More Arts Please.

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