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STEAM, Not STEM—OpED By Suzanne Fogarty and NASA's Kim Arcand

"Making The Case for STEAM, Not STEM" cowritten by Head of School Suzanne Fogarty and Kim Arcand, the visualization lead for NASA’s space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory, was published in the January 10, 2020 issue of The Providence Business News


If you looked up at the sky on Oct. 19, 2019, you might have caught sight of history being made somewhere among the stars. On that day, NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir – a Brown University alumna – became the first to take part in an all-female spacewalk. Their job was to fix a component on the International Space Station’s exterior, but we’d argue that their mission was actually powered by STEAM.

STEAM, which adds the dynamic “A” for “art” into the traditional STEM acronym [science, technology, engineering and math], is an interdisciplinary approach that the world, and especially girls and women, need in order to move boldly into the future.

In our areas of expertise, we see firsthand the benefits and possibilities of STEAM. A concept originally championed by the Rhode Island School of Design, the purpose of STEAM is not to teach art – it’s to apply creative thinking and divine inspiration in real-world situations in order to foster deeper learning and ingenuity.

The traditional boundaries of STEM have left a lot of learners and leaders feeling stuck or left on the sidelines. Employment in STEM occupations has grown 79% since 1990, increasing from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, and is slated to grow an additional 13% by 2027. Ensuring that growth is met is hindered in part by a pervasive gender disparity – just 18% of American computer science college degrees go to women, and women make up less than one-quarter of those employed in STEM occupations. It’s a problem that has its roots in education. A 2019 study in the U.K. found that just 32% of girls put a STEM subject down as their favorite, compared with 59% of boys. And it gets worse after college. Women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, but only 28% of the science and engineering workforce. And only a small sliver are women of color.

What did the girls from that U.K. study note as their favorite subject? Thirty-two percent said the arts, compared with 16% for boys. When the arts are combined with STEM, it can be a powerful gateway to these disciplines. That is, perhaps, the real beauty of the STEAM approach – the “A” could just as easily stand for “access.” By opening up the pedagogy and practices to incorporate artistic methods, we bring in fresh voices, perspectives and ways of thinking. It introduces new interests, bringing topics to life in unexpected ways to reach statistically underrepresented people. It’s about unveiling the creative underpinnings of the way things work in order to design innovative ways to reimagine them.

The real beauty of the STEAM approach – the ‘A’ could just as easily stand for ‘access.’

A forebearer of the STEAM concept was Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci, who is not only widely considered one of the best painters of all time, but is also heralded as the father of paleontology, ichnology and architecture. Da Vinci’s call to humankind: “Study the science of art. Study the art of science. … Realize that everything connects to everything else.”

This crossover between art and science [and technology, engineering and math] often has played out in modern history – in Apple Inc.’s sleek, modern interface in stores or in the palm of your hand; in the pacemaker, which keeps the heartbeat regulated and has its roots in the musical metronome; or in Nicole Stott, who was both the first astronaut to fly the robotic arm on the International Space Station and the first person to paint in space.

Recently, we conducted a creative workshop that brought Lincoln School and NASA together, reinforcing this approach with some of STEM’s most underserved students: middle school girls. According to Girls Who Code, 74% of middle school girls express an interest in engineering, science and math, but only 0.3% choose computer science as a college major. Societal pressure and lack of opportunity are likely culprits for this shift.

In a world where seeing is often believing, we knew it was critical for these girls to hear from a woman at the front of the room. Students learned coding basics before graduating to data from the areas around black holes. We explored 3D modeling and virtual reality while working with data from NASA orbiting telescopes. While having fun, we experienced real-world applications of science, technology and art, sparking new passion for futures they may never before have dreamed.

Art and science are different expressions of the same human need to comprehend the universe around us. What sense does it make to tear those two apart when the combination is so powerful? Just as the world is not divided by disciplines, education should not be divided along subject lines that so naturally intersect, overlap and intertwine. The students of today need a sophisticated and nimble approach that will enable them to not just understand themselves and their environment, but to engineer the future and to reach for the stars. Full STEAM ahead.

Suzanne Fogarty is head of school at Lincoln School in Providence and Kim Arcand, a Warwick native, is the visualization lead for NASA’s space-based Chandra X-ray Observatory.

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