Today’s blog is a guest post from my colleague Thomas Tran. Thomas is the Director of the Stamford American International School Innovation Center. As a designer, Thomas has positively shaped the way STEAM and Innovation is integrated at our school. Connect with him on Twitter.
STEM/STEAM, most known as the acronym for the educational approach that utilizes Science, Technology, Engineering, (Arts), and Mathematics at its core to guide students through inquiry skills, problem-solving, critical thinking, and more has recently been growing in popularity and adoption by schools and integrated into school curriculums. Through these titles (Science, Technology, etc.) of how we decided to approach the acronym, I believe that we created a difficulty for ourselves as educators to adopt the approach and caused a redistributed focus to the core of what STEM/STEAM was meant to be.
STEM/STEAM taps into the idea of cross-, inter-, and multidisciplinary thought and action. It calls for the collaboration of the disciplines defined (Science, Technology, Engineering, (Arts), Mathematics). Innately the problem is how we think about the disciplines. If you gave yourself a few seconds to respond to the question ‘What is science?’ (or technology, engineering, art, and math), I believe many of us may instinctually answer with such things as ‘biology, environment studies, physics, etc.’ Its not as though we would answer ‘the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment’ (www.dictionary.com). That is just too abstract and we are not walking bodies of accuracy, we utilize interpretation. But, it is through these abstractions that allow for the easier collaboration between disciplines because of the former thought limits and requires the collaboration to be focused on content while the latter approaches it with a focus on the process.
A focus on content (or in this case the content of subject matters in the disciplines) makes it difficult to bring together the various disciplines. Imagine writing a unit around physics (science) and painting (arts). While this can be done, it is not necessarily easy, it requires content to align, and it is rather superficial in the way we think about the discipline. Instead of thinking about these disciplines through the subject, we should be asking, ‘if I were in this discipline, what would I need to do?’ or simply ‘what do scientists do (or technology do for us, engineers do, artists, and so forth)?’
From these questions, you begin to identify the skills within the roles and the processes and techniques that these disciplines require and utilize. These processes, skills, and techniques should be the focus on STEM/STEAM and through the subject matter and content is how they will be challenged and fostered. It would be much easier to write a unit of science and art integration if thought more so through ‘inquiry’ and ‘expression’. This means the content defines the parameters (i.e pollution) requiring the action to investigate (i.e. whether through surveys, experimentation, etc. into pollution) and calls for a result that expresses their finding (i.e. a graphic, painting, etc. which should always be defined by the student unless a requirement for specific techniques). In this approach, we as educators can begin to better align units, utilize our knowledge of disciplines, including specialists, etc.
Content is a moving target for understanding, it’s always changing. But processes (although they can evolve) allows methods to approach this content and utilize them. If we continue to focus on STEM/STEAM through the lens of subject matter and content, at some point we will deem it too troublesome, difficult, time-consuming, etc. When that happens the trend will more than likely be replaced by the next ‘thing’. That would be unfortunate because while these processes exist in education already, they are often sheltered within the content. If we do not focus on that content, the process may not be utilized. With STEM/STEAM, never has it been such an opportunity for ‘process’ to take a front seat.