From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts ~ A Review

Following on the last entry, today’s post will continue what will be a yearlong focus on evolution. No, not that evolution!

STEM Institute spends one day during Introduction to Inquiry on evolution as it refers to teaching. Our program has evolved, just as we have evolved as teachers in our thinking about and practice of teaching and as we encourage all teachers to evolve over the course of their teaching careers. But we are increasingly wondering if  our evolution as a provider of teacher professional development should include evolving from STEM to STEAM, infusing more arts into our program, or at least exploring that option.

What we don’t want to do is thoughtlessly tack on some art activities to reinforce science content … a poem here, a drawing there. Rather we want to investigate what deeply infusing the arts into the STEM program would do for kids. And what it would look like? What are the practical implications? What are the arguments for and against, and what are the implications for 21st century learning?

But let’s begin with why we might even consider such an evolution in a program that is already high quality and highly regarded by teachers. Why mess with success?

To help answer this question, let’s take a look at a book focused precisely on our theme. From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts by David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki (Corwin, 2013) provides a combination of the grounding philosophy, historical perspective, and science to support such an evolution and the practical tools, strategies, and activities for teachers and principals to employ in carrying it out.


STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts

The first two chapters of From STEM to STEAM present the philosophical and scientific background for Sousa and Pilecki’s view that STEM ought to become STEAM. They see arts and science as complementary rather than competitive and situate that idea in history. The ancient Olympic games in Greece, for example, included competitions in the arts as well as in sports, with the arts being every bit as prestigious. And Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti “saw no boundaries between the arts and sciences.”

Citing research study after research study, the authors provide ample ammunition for educators looking to make a case for STEAM. The arts foster cognitive development in children, helping young minds develop creativity, problem solving, critical thinking, communications, self-direction, initiative, and collaboration. The arts evoke emotions, which enhances learning and fosters retention. And Sousa and Pilecki suggest novel reasons for integrating arts within a STEM curriculum, including the idea that “the arts introduce many more possibilities for novelty,” which, according to neuroscientists, is necessary to grabbing student attention, a necessary precursor to learning. Students like doing “something different,” and hearing their teacher announce “we’re going to be doing something different today” makes them sit up and take notice. The arts also lower stress levels making young minds more receptive to retaining new knowledge. Reducing stress is particularly important in these times of high stakes testing. The arts also make teaching more interesting and fun for teachers. Teachers benefit from novelty too. A bored teacher isn’t likely to excite a child to learn.

Sousa and Pilecki very much support the approach taken by STEM Institute in encouraging teachers to strive for many answers and to encourage divergent thinking. They observe that “the actual time that teachers devote to divergent thinking in STEM classes is often limited because the STEM areas – as currently taught in our schools – lend themselves so well to convergent thinking, and because testing STEM concepts is easier with close-ended questions that have only one correct answer. Yet this type of instruction may be extinguishing creativity in our students. Some researchers believe that by consistently reinforcing neural pathways with convergent thinking activities, we may be limiting the pathways that support creative and divergent thinking.” That gives one pause because, “the study of the arts not only allows students to develop skills that will improve the quality of their lives but also sustains the same creative base from which scientists and engineers seek to develop their innovations and breakthroughs of the future.” Citing research on musicians and London cabbies, the authors report that divergent thinking challenges the brain and in the process changes it for the better, actually enlarging parts of the brain essential to creativity — the corpus callosum, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobe. So absent ample opportunities for divergent thinking, that could result by adding arts, students are less likely to be able to make those future breakthroughs.

And all of the above seem to be excellent reasons to move from STEM to STEAM.

From STEM to STEAM includes lots of practical resources to help you get started on your evolutionary journey. One of my favorites is “Table 1.2: Practices and concepts from the K-12 National Research Council framework (precursor to the NGSS) and skills often acquired in arts-related instruction,” which could become your go to place for generating ideas about art activities that would address the NGSS Scientific and Engineering Practices and the Crosscutting Concepts. Another helpful table provides “comparisons of the traditional approach with an arts-integrated approach,” just to keep us honest.

Also useful are the sample arts integration lessons organized in grade level specific chapters “Chapter 4: Implementing Arts Integration, Grades K-4;” “Chapter 5: Implementing Arts Integration, Grades 5-8;” and “Chapter 6: Implementing Arts Integration, Grades 9-12.” Early childhood educators will welcome the developmentally appropriate recommendations and the research behind them in Chapter 4. However, all K-12 teachers will find the planning tools and templates in these chapters convenient and timesaving. These include Bloom’s Taxonomy Applications, Multiple Intelligences Applications, management planning, lesson plan formats, and a template for designing a STEAM unit across grade levels. Throughout the book the authors provide dozens of activities, and a final section lists STEAM resources (books, films, journals, organizations, and websites).

If you are looking to get your creative juices flowing, two particularly inspiring chapters are “STEAM Lesson Plan Appetizers in Science, Technology and Engineering” and “STEAM Lesson Plan Appetizers in Mathematics.” The authors define “appetizers” as the “beginning of your creative journey.” They are “meant to be the beginning of a complete lesson plan, something to make you want to dive into the ‘full-course’ of creating your own, tailor-made STEAM lesson plan.” They are designed to help you “incubate” your own lesson plan ideas into fully fledged lessons and units to excite and engage your students, and the authors include for each a curriculum objective, an artistic objective, and a social/emotional objective, as well as an assessment, materials, and multiple intelligences and Bloom’s levels addressed.

From STEM to STEAM is crammed with ideas, activities, and resources for teachers who want to infuse their STEM curricula with the arts. More importantly, the book provides the philosophical foundation and scientific research base for doing so — great information to help you make your case with colleagues, administrators, and parents. I can’t recommend the book highly enough. It is well worth your time and money, for the activities alone.

You might also find it interesting to read David Sousa and Tom Pilecki’s blog post, summarizing their position and challenging the supremacy of standardized testing in today’s schools.

A final note: While not every blog post over the coming year will focus on STEM to STEAM, there is, after all, climate change, and we also want to report on great teachers and schools where STEM is blossoming, you’ll find a lot of STEAM in this school year’s blog posts. I also really encourage you to weigh in by leaving comments. Are you intrigued by STEAM? Are you already doing it? What are the benefits? The challenges? What impact do you see on your students? What concerns do you have?

~ Penny

Just click on the link to learn more about Golden Apple’s STEM Institute.


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Filed under arts, book review, brain based research, brain compatible instruction, creativity, innovation, resources, STEAM, STEM education, teacher resources, Uncategorized

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