The Movement from STEM to STEAM

The Movement from STEM to STEAM

By Randall Adams, President of The Academy of Notre Dame

The search for the right balance in curriculum is a constant endeavor in education. In the 21st century we have seen a constant increase in schools shaping their curriculum around the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Over the years, the focus on these disciplines and the practice of teaching them in an interdisciplinary and applied approach has become known by its acronym, STEM.  Most people now know STEM as a cohesive learning model based on real-world applications.

There has been a great deal of discussion and debate regarding the pros and cons of STEM and the possible negative effects of focusing primarily on the sciences and pushing the arts to the background.  This has led to the introduction of STEAM; STEM + A for Art.  The arts are a powerful learning tool and can serve as an on-ramp to STEM for students who may not naturally or intuitively have an interest in the sciences. By engaging students’ strengths using art activities, educators are able to increase student motivation and the probability of STEM success. Art also provides opportunities for communication and expression, and brings innovation into the learning equation. 

What does STEAM education look like in the classroom?

The Makerspace for Education website provides a spot-on rationale for why innovative learning is important in our schools: “In schools we often have a traditional model of a teacher providing knowledge and a student replicating that knowledge in the form of a project after the knowledge transfer has taken place. Despite this project perhaps being viewed as "hands on learning" and some type of creation made by the student, it is not constructionism just because a student "constructed" something.  There was no problem to be solved, only information to be reproduced.”  The STEAM movement shifts the focus to design and innovation, and away from simple regurgitation of facts. 

The Maker Movement

From preschool to third grade, student creativity has been encouraged with the use of materials such as Play-Doh and Legos. As students advanced through their school years, however, their exposure to activities that would promote creativity and design slowly evaporated. With the maker movement finding its way into our schools, we have a chance to promote those activities again using design thinking as a way to teach and develop complex skills for students of all ages. Design thinking is the crucial element that must occur before, during, and after “making” happens. In order for this to occur, it must be intentional and planned for in grade level curriculum mapping and lessons.

The Academy STEAMs Ahead

At the Academy of Notre Dame plans are afoot to grow our STEM program with a gradual transition to STEAM.  Through our STEAM Initiative, we seek to provide the skills, tools and inspiration to elementary and middle school students for exploring and creating engineering projects and art. The focus will be on providing the guidance and resources necessary for self-directed learning, enabling students of all backgrounds and abilities to reach their personal best.  We will do this through further development of our after school Enrichment program, as well as increased incorporation of STEAM curriculum and projects into our daily classroom lessons.  To support this shift, this summer we will be renovating and updating our middle school science lab, as well as building a new design/maker space on the third floor for students to use during and after school.  It is by design that we are currently in the process of engaging in a school-wide process of mapping our curriculum.  This will be instrumental of the successful growth of our programs.