Talk about a lightbulb moment. Last year, a visiting artist came to Quatama Elementary School in Hillsboro, Oregon, to show second graders how to make light sculptures. But when the time came to light up her sculpture, nothing happened. Calmly, the artist fixed the problem in the circuit and
illuminated the sculpture. Students got a three-in-one lesson in electricity, art, and how to deal with inevitable setbacks that arise in STEM projects. So when students tackled their own light sculptures, recalls Principal Janis Hill, “nobody fell apart.”
As STEM education gains traction, schools like Quatama are going a step further by integrating arts into the mix: STEM into STEAM. Why art? It belongs there, says Harvey Seifter, founder of the Art of Science Learning. He reminds us it was only in the last century that a model of education emerged which strictly separated art and the sciences. “It’s not a natural separation, and there are some pretty powerful forces driving the two back together.”
Art can spark creativity in young scientists and engineers, develop observational abilities, and strengthen collaborative skills, and it is “a powerful and rich tool in the hands of educators who are prepared to use it,” Seifter says.
Fortunately, you don’t need high-tech gadgetry or an art-school degree to offer STEAM projects, just a willingness to try something new. Here are 10 tips to get you started.
1 | Start Slow
STEAM is all about integrating subjects, but that doesn’t mean every STEAM project is equally science, technology, engineering, art, and math, says art teacher Andrew Watson. He provides guidance to teachers as part of the STEAM Education Project in Fairfax, Virginia, public schools. “You don’t have to fit every single letter in every single project,” Watson advises. Instead, he suggests starting with what you’re already teaching. Jason Phipps, a Quatama fifth-grade teacher, agrees: “I still have a general day where I’m supposed to teach math at a certain time and reading and writing at a certain time. I just try to make more connections between the subjects.” One simple place to start: Look to the math in art, and the art in math. Students can create tessellations to study symmetry or use fractions to create artwork, as they’ve done in Phipps’s class.
2 | Use What You’ve Got
You don’t necessarily need special funding or equipment. Phipps’s students learned how to calculate area by creating models of buildings out of cardboard. The activity also included a creative-writing element, as students wrote about why these particular buildings would be dedicated in their name. One student wrote about becoming a doctor, so she designed a hospital that would bear her name.
3 | Look to Leonardo
History is full of examples of scientists with strong artistic backgrounds, and vice versa. By studying the sketch for Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine or John James Audubon’s meticulous bird illustrations, students are able to see how creativity can spark scientific accomplishment. But these kinds of connections don’t have to remain stuck in the past. Darcy LaPanta, a seventh-grade English teacher at Edgewood Middle School in Mounds View, Minnesota, recommends inviting experts in your own community, such as architects or industrial designers, to speak about how the arts are integrated into their careers.
4 | Focus on the Process
The engineering design process, which includes the steps ask, imagine, plan, create, and improve, can be applied to any project. Christine Miller, a kindergarten teacher at Dranesville Elementary School in Herndon, Virginia, says, “When you think about the components of engineering something and creating art, many factors are the same.” This is especially the case for revision. When Miller’s students were making paper snowflakes, she asked them what they would do if they made a mistake. Students said they would follow the example of the laid-back children’s book character Pete the Cat. “They said, ‘It’s not a big problem, just keep going,’” recalls Miller, who says the “improve” part of the engineering design process is no longer scary to her kids.
5 | Partner with the Art Teacher
If you’ve got an art expert in your building, take full advantage! At Dranesville Elementary, the art teacher, math specialist, and technology specialist all share duties in leading the STEAM lab, says Susan Shahidi, a third-grade teacher. For one project, students were tasked to construct a sled that could hold three stuffed animals. Her students visit the lab a couple of times a month, and Shahidi takes what she learns from the art teacher in those sessions and filters it into other aspects of her teaching. “Parts of the engineering design process, I carry over to my everyday instruction,” she says.
6 | Think Beyond the Paintbrush
The arts in STEAM are not just limited to drawing and design. Students in Phipps’s class at Quatama learn vocabulary through theatrical performance. They try to act out the meaning of a word. “It reinforces everything that we’re teaching but in a more active way,” says Phipps. At Edgewood, LaPanta teaches an elective on the science of photography. As part of that class, students dissect a sheep’s eye and compare how the lens and camera are similar to an eye.
7 | Make It Matter
STEAM projects are relevant to students’ lives because they offer practice problem solving. At Edgewood, students can learn robotics, design their own fishing poles, study personal genetics and ancestry, or even take an Iron Chef–style class where they learn the science of baking. Watson, the art teacher from Fairfax, had his students take everyday objects and try to build something that would solve a problem in their life. Some students made contraptions to help their parents do something practical but others went in a more whimsical direction—one student made a hot-air balloon for his ferret so it could see the world.
8 | Plan a Project
Quatama kindergarten teacher Ski Taylor recalls how, just a few years ago, there was no room in the day to teach science. That has changed.
“We’re trying to teach reading and writing through science and art projects,” says Taylor. For example, kindergarten students observed frogs at a nearby stream, then created four prints to illustrate the life cycle of a frog. They went on to compile those prints into books. For another project, students kept a journal as they tracked a plant’s growth, designed a pollinator, and wrote predictions about what would happen.
9 | Embrace Failure
This is LaPanta’s 17th year of teaching, and the seventh-grade teacher has seen a huge spike in the number of students asking questions. During one of her photography lessons on scale drawing and the zoom lens, a student who normally struggled with the math concepts was surprisingly excited about the assignment. It took the student several tries to get the correct dimensions, but later, when she tackled the same concept in a different context, she was able to understand the assignment. “We want them to know they’re not going to get things right on the first try—and that’s okay,” LaPanta says.
She emphasizes the importance of giving students the freedom to fail, along with the support to turn it around. That same rule applies to teachers: Staff members meet often to bounce ideas off one another.
10 | Accept the Chaos
You’ll definitely increase the chaos level in your classroom when trying STEAM. Miller recently heard a crash in the construction-block center of her elementary classroom. “It’s just a glitch!” announced one of her students. “Going through this process with them, they have started to embrace problems,” she says.
When you see how engaged your students are, Watson says, it’s pure magic. “Once you see it happen, you realize this is really why we got into teaching.”