To Reach our Full Potential

At a STEM to STEAM forum held last week at The Rhode Island Foundation, Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) addressed a gathering of Rhode Island’s arts, business, and education leaders, emphasizing that “our country must integrate art and design into efforts to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and research to reach our full potential for innovation and economic growth.”

Langevin has partnered with Rhode Island School of Design President John Maeda in this initiative, saying “RISD’s work under President Maeda’s leadership has shown the benefits of this integrated approach. We must bring it to other educational and training programs if we are to succeed in closing the gap between the skills our students are taught and the abilities that employers need.” (read more here)

The Arts Room applauds the efforts of Congressman Langevin and RISD President Maeda and urges our local school officials and administrators to support the integrated arts approach in our district schools.  In recent years the Bristol Warren Regional School District (BWRSD) has most definitely boarded the STEM train, partnering with the University of Texas Dana Center to develop rigorous K-12 science curriculum, working with Roger Williams University to develop an alternate pathway to certification for STEM educators, and hiring more STEM teachers and specialists while letting go teachers from other academic departments.  But I’ve yet to see any indication that we’re preparing to transfer to the STEAM train, and we would be foolish to remain behind if the goal is to deliver the best possible education to the children of this district.

The STEM initiative bugs me.  Before you dismiss my annoyance as the envious grumblings of an artist/writer, let me set you straight.  I have always been good at math & science.  I hold two degrees in engineering.  I was successfully navigating the world of corporate engineering when I was handed a terrible moment of good fortune, and I realized I was miserable in my job and on the wrong path.  So I jumped off that train, left the corporate engineering world, and went to art school.  Which may sound like a complete 180 – except it’s not, when you know that I always enjoyed the arts as a child, I lived with art majors all through college, and most importantly, there is a lot of natural crossover between the STEM disciplines and Art & Design.

Which is why the STEM initiative bugs me, and STEM to STEAM intrigues me.  Watching the progress of the STEM initiative is like watching the almost slow-motion path of a golf ball on the way to a hole-in-one shot that veers off just slightly at the last minute and causes that frustrating, “ahhhhhhhhh-oooooohhhhhh!” feeling of disappointment.  Close, but no cigar.  In conversations regarding what a better education should look like, STEM advocates have successfully linked the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but they’ve left out a crucial set of disciplines: the Arts & Design.  We are preparing our children for a world economy that is not just about information and technology; it’s about innovation and creativity.  To paraphrase an example Mr. Maeda gave at the forum last week, if technology is all that matters, people would buy the cheaper MP3 player.  Good aesthetics and good design is what put Apple’s iPod into everyone’s pockets.

In practical terms, the Arts & Design are academic disciplines that are particularly well-suited to bringing a transformative, integrated approach to education (read more about the integrated arts approach to education here).  The strategies and practices of a studio education (things like brainstorming ideas, seeking multiple perspectives, critiquing, tweaking, and reflecting on solutions) can be brought into the classrooms of all other academic disciplines to create deeper and more meaningful learning experiences for all students.  In his presentation at the STEM to STEAM forum John Maeda explained that “the studio method taught at RISD, which emphasizes project-based experiential learning, is a model for teaching the kind of creative problem solving, flexible thinking and risk-taking required to challenge conventional ideas and innovate in today’s fast-changing world.”  Recent studies overwhelmingly reveal that business leaders and CEOs worldwide consider creativity the single-most important quality needed to compete in today’s complex economy, but they have difficulty finding employees with the creative knowledge and skills they seek (read here, and here).  Ignoring the potential of the STEM to STEAM Initiative would be a tragic failure.

Speaking as a parent with children in the school system right now, and having spent time in both worlds (STEM and Arts & Design), I am glad to hear our district is developing a rigorous science curriculum – this is important work.  And I am glad we are working to recruit and train qualified STEM educators – teachers should have expertise in the disciplines they are hired to teach!  Our high school STEM teachers have had a taste of what interdisciplinary learning can do – as reported in the East Bay Newspapers last week, Mt. Hope High School juniors achieved a double-digit increase from the previous year’s scores in last spring’s science NECAP test, and school leaders attribute much of that success to recent efforts to integrate the math and science curriculum with the English and language arts curriculum.  Taking the next step, integrating the Arts & Design with STEM would take us even further – engaging more young minds, empowering more students to make connections, and delivering deeper and more meaningful learning experiences to more of our children.

We are heading in the right direction.  The steps our district has taken to improve STEM education are paying off and we are proud of our educators and our students.  Still, striving only to improve STEM education would be myopic at best.  We live in an interdisciplinary world, and our children’s educational experiences must reflect that if they are to leave high school well-prepared to enter college (in whatever form) or the working world.  I would like to see our school district undertake a concerted, system-wide effort to create an interdisciplinary, integrated arts approach to learning, K-12.  I would like to see our Arts educators and our STEM educators (heck, all our educators!) given the support and encouragement to work together to develop a curriculum of project-based interdisciplinary learning experiences for their students.  There is a great deal of knowledge, talent, and experience right here in our district, our community, and our state ready to collaborate on such an endeavor.

The Arts Room to the BWRSD:

Jump over to the STEAM train!

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