Monday, March 11, 2013

The need for STEAM

I will now give fair warning...I am going to get on a soapbox for this post.
I was reading through my Zite feed and found this post on how at the heart of every Pixar animation is a computation engine designed with the rules of geometry and physics. This just reinforces that idea to me that schools need to focus on more than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) career pathways and redefine them as STEAM (add Art) career pathways.

The POTUS has put a lot of money and policy (Race to the Top) behind the creation of these new STEM career pathways to create a new supply of trained and educated workers for these career fields. Primarily, the major need for these fields is due to the retirement of workers after the last push for these career fields from the Sputnik scare of 1957. With the idea that the Russians were able to create and successfully orbit and artificial satellite during the escalation of the Cold War, Americans had to ensure that we would be second to no one. This resulted in a huge push for more scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, and President Kennedy's decree that we would reach the moon by the end of the decade (1960s).

With it now being 2013, all of those engineers, scientists, and mathematicians have had a very successful 30+ years in the field and are now retiring in droves. As we push forward, we have to recognize that the world has radically changed since 1957.

I was very fortunate to experience a very well rounded education when I was in high school. I had the chance to explore visual as well as performance art in addition to my studies of science, math, and the humanities. I joke with people that I was much smarter when I was in high school because I was able to discuss topics of biology, chemistry, physics, history, literature, and others. Once I went to college, I chose a major and focused on the study of biology and my working knowledge of the other subjects went by the wayside. But, again, I was fortunate to still have the chance to continue a personal pursuit of vocal performance with the Varsity Men's Glee Club and an a cappella group, No Strings Attached.

It is this well rounded education that has enriched my life and my work in education. But a big part of that is that the pursuit of biology, education, and vocal performance were my passions. Educators and policy makers are pushing these STEM career pathways into 6th and 7th grade. As students move through these pathways year to year, it will become progressively difficult to alter pathways the later they go in the schooling. Should we be asking students to select a career pathway in 6th grade?

And why this push? Our test scores are low, compared to other nations. So, how do we fix this? Test more and narrow focus. What happens when a student's passions are not found within STEM? What happens when students grow and develop and their passions change?

If we are able to evolve STEM into STEAM, that would at least provide more students options and open more pathways to students who already like the STEM careers.

Case in point, a friend of mine had quite a bit of talent in the sciences, but she also had a lot of talent in drawing, which is where her passions were (as she was graduating college). Luckily enough, she had good educators around her to guide her to her career in medical illustration. Just as the Pixar article suggested, within the arts, STEM is already present, but not necessarily a conscious part of the career choice process.

Additionally, recent conversations I have had with various colleagues and friends have mentioned how their ability to express themselves, in both written and verbal formats, have allowed them to advance and collect more grant dollars than any of their subject specific trainings. Despite their lack of formal testing under NCLB, the arts need to be emphasized and encouraged.

Education needs to move full STEAM ahead.

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