From STEM to STEAM: Adding the Arts
 By Naomi Dillon

“Disconnect” is one of the most commonly uttered refrains in the discourse about what’s wrong with the U.S. public school system. Students are bored by today’s curriculum, schools are out of sync with today’s job market, and the existing talent pool is ill-equipped to compete on a global scale.
To face these multi-pronged challenges, many education reformers and pundits have pointed to science, technology, engineering, and math as the fields that will help America maintain its position as an economic and intellectual force to be reckoned with.

The focus on these disciplines, known as STEM, has spawned a plethora of magnet schools, national conferences, and federal programs.
In practice and in research, however, a growing number of educators are coming to the conclusion that something is missing from this acronym, which is to say something is missing in the way we educate and train the next generation of workers.
“We hear a lot from businesses saying ‘Kids are coming out [of school] unprepared, they don’t know how to work in teams, they aren’t creative, they don’t know how to think critically,’” says Georgette Yakman, who discovered a different way to think and connect education’s most critical lessons.
While a graduate student at Virginia Polytechnic and State University’s Integrated Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics Educational program (ISTEMed), Yakman embarked on an extensive research project to figure out how the American public school system got to where it’s at and how STEM came to be its roadmap to the future.
“I was trying to figure out how the subjects fit together and I had this incredible a-ha moment,” Yakman says. “I found not just a way for these subjects to physically interact with another and be cross-taught, but how all the disciplines support each other.”
She called this approach of adding arts to the curriculum STEAM.
“The magic sentence is science and technology interpreted through engineering and arts all through mathematical elements; those are active ways at looking at what we have to create a new world. That is STEAM, as I see it,” says Yakman. She has slowly pushed this holistic model of education through papers, presentations, and a fledgling consulting firm.

Rather than being at the center of a major reform movement, however, arts is often marginalized and shut out of key initiatives and discussions on building a world class education system.
That’s a big mistake, says Jim Brazell, a technology forecaster, strategist, and public speaker who has spent much of his career speculating about the next big thing in industry and society.
“The first thing people are missing when it comes to the arts in the world is that arts are a huge component of our wealth creation,” Brazell says, noting that U.S. creative industries, which includes the software, film, and publishing, as well as architects, advertisers, and designers, accounted for more than 6.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2007.
“There’s real wealth here, but if you go into schools today they are cutting the arts,” Brazell says. “Creativity is not a department down the hallway. Our ability to create, make, and design is what makes us human … and it’s what will make us prosper.”
While a focus on the STEM fields makes sense as digital literacy has become a required skill for all jobs, along with higher math and reading skills, schools do the next generation of learners a disservice by excluding the arts.
“You can look at arts in different ways; as a discipline, as a commercial sector, as a philosophy, but it’s also an economic model,” Brazell says. “We are shifting from a classical economic model of creating products to creating ideas. What we’re talking about is the ability to innovate and be creative.”
And arts are the conduit, the glue, the agent through which all great ideas begin and end.
“The problem is we want to break arts down rather thinking about the connections,” Brazell says. “Many European and Asian countries don’t make the distinctions we do here; they don’t draw the line where we do. In England, they have the foundation for the science and arts.

Consciously and unconsciously, however, the silos between science and art seem to be softening in the U.S. as well.
The National Science Foundation has hosted and funded a number of recent conferences and workshops, including last year’s “Bridging STEM to STEAM: Developing New Frameworks for Art-Science-Design Pedagogy,” which brought together top scientists, artists, IT experts and educators at the Rhode Island School of Design to develop ways to support these interdisciplinary connections.
While it may not be explicitly stated, such linkages are being made at Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools, which was a host site for a 2011 TLN Education Technology site visit and a former TLN Salute District.
“We don’t say anything that says this is specific to STEAM,” says Sharon Shrout, the director of computer education support. “But anytime, kids are creating regardless of which tools they use, there is an arts element to it.”
That can be seen in a number of programs and classroom activities that proliferate throughout the district.
Each spring, for instance, fifth-graders at Chenoweth Elementary complete a six week multi-media project culminating in the Chenoweth Film Festival. Students choose their film’s subject from a list of core content topics including everything from the water cycle to alliteration to fractions.
Students are responsible for everything that has to do with their film including researching, writing, filming, acting, and promotion. They also create their own movie posters and their soundtrack using Microsoft software and MIDI technology.
“It honors the different talents that kids bring to the team,” Shrout says. “It really helps to build the whole 21st century student because it’s that whole child and that whole education that we want to serve.”
Naomi Dillon ( is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.