Picking up Steam

The STEAM movement has been making big waves since 2010, but what is it exactly? The answer to this question is simple: STEAM is a movement mounted by advocates for including the arts in an education system that heavily emphasizes STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. This heavy focus on STEM derives from a world economy driven by the growing science and technology sectors. STEAM supporters argue that pushing students towards learning "hard skills" (e.g., coding, programming, etc.) is done at the expense of the arts, which works to the detriment of the country's workforce and productivity in the long-run. 

Image from stemtosteam.org

Will STEAM efforts add value to K-12 education? In short the answer is yes; but that is if, and only if, these efforts are executed in a systematic and meaningful way. Here at the Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC), we believe in a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach to education and the dispersal of knowledge to the general public, much like the rest of the Smithsonian Institution. While the SSEC largely advocates STEM education, it lives under an umbrella of Smithsonian organizations that includes 19 museums and galleries in Washington, DC alone, the majority of which are not STEM-centric. As an intern, the SSEC embodies to me the idea that we cannot have science without art, and vice versa. If anything, the truth is that making STEM accessible and interesting for K-12 students is a goal best met when scientists and non-scientists collaborate. In this way, the SSEC represents the important intersection of the arts and sciences by delivering a curriculum that is not only rigorous, but also engaging.

The barrier between arts and science is, I believe, a remnant from how we used to think about education: STEM students are more analytical, while art/humanities students are more creative. It's becoming clearer that this is not the case. In her 2002 TED talk, Mae Jemison said, "The difference between science and the arts is not that they are different sides of the same coin ... or even different parts of the same continuum, but rather, they are manifestations of the same thing. The arts and sciences are both avatars of human creativity." Jemison is living proof of this fact: she is both a physician and a dancer, as well as the first African American woman in space.

The conversation surrounding STEAM efficacy has certainly grown louder as of late. As recently as May, STEAM maps indicating locales where an effort to include arts in STEM were introduced on Capitol Hill. There are a number of case studies describing regional and national efforts to bring art back into the mix, as well as success stories in schools or districts that are currently piloting STEAM programs. A prime example of such an effort lives in the heart of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden: ARTLAB+

ARTLAB+ is a digital media after-school program that is open from 3 to 7 pm Monday through Friday. In the early afternoon (3 -- 5 pm), teens are allowed to decompress in what is called Open Studio, during which they can feel free to socialize with friends, do their homework assignments, or use a computer to do research. Later in the evening (5 -- 7 pm), teens engage in Artist Studio and are actively mentored by a Hishhorn employee. Mondays are dedicated to monuments and architecture, Tuesdays to photography, Wednesdays to video game design, Thursdays to audio and video design, and Fridays to 3-D design. I don't know about you, but I certainly wish I had an ARTLAB+ when I was growing up.

After speaking with Amy Homma, ARTLAB+'s Manager of Digital Learning Programs, I learned that ARTLAB+ emphasizes a process-based rather than product-based practice. This difference, Homma says, "turns students from consumers into creators."

A prime example of STEAM is teen Akilah Padgett's 3-D design project completed at this after-school program. Sixteen-year-old Padgett participated in the White House's first Maker Faire just last month, presenting a nine-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus rex model made of paper. Most recently, Padgett has been working on an original papercraft design for the head of an Edmontonia longiceps dinosaur. She developed and colored the model using paleontological books and design software (Maya and ZBrush), transformed the 3-D model into 2-D polygons using Pepakura Designer software, and then printed the model using a large-scale printer in the ARTLAB+ space. This project is the personification of engineering, art, and math come to life!

Not only is the ARTLAB+ great for Open Studio and Artist Studio after school, it also plays host to programs in conjunction with other Smithsonian organizations. Homma mentioned a new initiative dubbed Tattoo Universe which ARTLAB+ is co-hosting with the National Museum of Natural History. Students will be studying body modification and identification through an anthropological lens.

It stands to reason that the juncture of the arts and sciences is where creativity shines most brightly. The advocates for STEAM are growing louder and more numerous; educators are beginning to see the crosshairs between these two seemingly different disciplines as a place where intellectual magic happens. With any luck, more and more educators around the country will start carrying the STEAM torch and supporting a movement of which it is now clear to me the Smithsonian is at the forefront.

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About the Author

Cathy Wang
SSEC Professional Services Intern

Cathy graduated cum laude from Duke University in May 2014 with a Bachelors of Science in Biology (concentration in Neurobiology) and two minors in Chemistry and Psychology. She graduated with distinction for a research project studying the progression of glioblastoma in an oncogenomics lab. During her time at Duke, she became interested in the pedagogy behind STEM education In K-8 classrooms while volunteering at Durham Public Schools with the American Red Cross. Moving forward, she hopes to use her SSEC experience to inform a future career in academic medicine and the medical humanities.