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STEAM: Arts education gaining new respect

For the past several years, people in certain education reform circles have focused their attention on STEM classes, a popular acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

The feeling has been that these are the areas that offer the most promise for future job growth and economic expansion. They're also the areas where American students typically come up short compared to their counterparts in other industrialized nations.

But a new acronym has been gradually working its way into the lexicon. STEM is now turning into STEAM, with arts education being given a seat at the table with its predominantly left-brain brethren.

I first heard this new acronym at the Lawrence school board meeting on Monday, during a discussion about the board's goals for the upcoming year. Superintendent Rick Doll explained that this is now the popular thinking in education circles - that science and engineering have a lot in common with creative arts, and they should be treated as complementing one another.

On Tuesday, Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker confirmed that this is, in fact, the new direction for a lot of research in education. She said the state agency even has a "STEAM team" working on developing curricula that combines the left-brain and right-brain disciplines.

The strategy appears to be that as the state of Kansas and local school districts develop curricula centered around career clusters and pathways to prepare students for jobs in these emerging fields, they need to encourage students to take things like art and music just as strongly as they emphasize science and math.

There is a lot of research to support this idea. One recent article in Scientific American said that creative arts have a lot in common with science and technology, and that instead of being treated as polar opposites, they should be thought of as two sides of the same coin.

"We know that the scientist’s laboratory and the artist’s studio are two of the last places reserved for open-ended inquiry, for failure to be a welcome part of the process, for learning to occur by a continuous feedback loop between thinking and doing," said author John Maeda.

That has to be gratifying for all the art teachers out there who, for many years, have lived with the knowledge that when times get tough and money gets short, theirs is always the first program on the chopping block, right next to foreign languages - which, it should be pointed out, we now refer to as "world languages." (They're not all foreigners.)

The Rhode Island School of Design has an entire website dedicated to the STEAM movement. Among its ambitions s to win passage of a congressional resolution supporting STEAM education. Supporters claim so far to have 40 House members from 20 states and the District of Columbia signed on to the "STEAM caucus." None, so far, are from Kansas.

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