In education, the one thing we can always be certain of is shifting priorities.  Over the past 20 years, in an attempt to “fix” the broken system, everyone from politicians to famous athletes to business moguls to educational leaders have tried to find and repair the gaps.  As the world changes, so does education.  Which is why most educators are skeptical of ANY initiatives that come down the pike.  Is this new approach really meant to help prepare of children for the future, or is it just people outside of education sticking their noses in where they don’t belong?

Not too long ago, STEM was a part of this change fabric.  The fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics were desperately in need of people to fill jobs that had never existed before.  Our economy needed people who had foundational understandings in these areas so that we could keep the jobs here, rather than outsourcing them to other countries where these subjects were “priorities”.  And so, the money faucet was turned on in full force.  The Federal government and large corporations provided grants to schools that placed an emphasis on teaching “STEM”.  Suddenly, we saw STEM schools popping up, Bring Your Own Device conversations occurring, and one-to-one technology initiatives being funded.  Schools were starting to look like the high-tech gadget hubs, but what kind of learning was being valued and promoted? We were all left with the question: what does STEM really mean, and were we fulfilling its true promise?

Approach vs. Material “Makeup”

There’s the old saying that you can put lipstick on a pig but at the end of the day, it’s still a pig.  The beginning stages of STEM were the lipstick stages.  We handed out computers and tablets like candy to schools, but they didn’t know what to do with them.  We invested in hiring science, math and technology teachers, but that didn’t mean that the curriculum had changed.  So if we are still teaching students the same way, but offering more sections in a school, does that really make a difference?

As more people caught on that throwing devices at schools without proper training wasn’t doing much, the idea of providing professional development in these areas and digging into the HOW of teaching STEM started to drive new thinking.  Perhaps it wasn’t the gadgets that mattered, but the teachers and the approach by which they were teaching.  To be frank, we are still having this conversation.  As Leland Melvin pointed out in our 2015 January edition of STEAMed, schools are still struggling to understand what STEM is, and how to teach through an integrated STEM approach.  How can we expect them to get on board with anything new in this area (STEAM, Project-Based Learning, Inquiry-Based Learning, etc) until they understand that the benefit is in the approach, not the materials?

The organization ISTE has done a tremendous job of paving the way for STEM education.  Through a set of student, teacher and leader standards, we can see the kind of knowledge and application in each of the STEM areas that is required to truly be fluent.  What’s more, the standards promote an integrated approach to teaching STEM, so that we can more easily pair naturally-matched Science and Math standards, or Engineering and Technology standards.  The idea is that teachers are teaching these content areas together, rather than in isolation.  THAT is what moves the needle for students: the approach of teaching integrated content for an innovative outcome.


Given all this background, it’s no wonder that the STEAM movement has been slow to truly take off.  STEM-area teachers are weary of what adding that “A” really means.  Are we back to the beginnings of the STEM movement where we are throwing in the arts as some new lipgloss to “engage” the students?  Are the arts just looking for a piece of the money pie that was supposed to support much-needed training and materials for STEM teachers?  If we add in the arts, why don’t we just add in reading (and any other content area) and call it STREAM or STREAMSS or SWTREAMSS?  If that’s the case, then aren’t we back to where we started?

All of these are valid questions, and quite honestly, the arts fields sometimes does not help themselves.  Being an artist and an arts integration specialist, I will be the first to admit that we want so badly to advocate for the arts that we sometimes jump on the bandwagon before looking where we leap.  That’s because for so long, it has been almost impossible to get people to acknowledge that the arts as valuable in and of themselves.  So of course, when the idea of STEAM started to evolve, arts educators were in whole-hearted agreement.  Finally, it seemed, people recognize that students use critical thinking and collaboration and higher-order skills when working in the arts.  Let’s advocate for adding “Arts” to the mix because they so naturally help students DO these things in our arts classes!  And while this is all true, the caution comes in how all of that is presented in the classroom.

Even now, we see “STEAM” initiatives happening that are similar to those first few years of STEM: creating artwork of the solar system or singing a song to memorize math facts.  While that’s fun, engaging, and may even help students to perform basic facts, it’s not authentic to a process of integration.  Nor does it truly honor the arts for the intrinsic value they bring to the whole child.  We are back at square one with two sides pitted against each other.

An Integration Foundation

Here is the common ground between both STEM and the Arts: the power lies in learning the content for its own sake and then applying those skills through the process of integration.  This is as true for the STEM areas as it is for the Arts.  It’s not enough to teach our content areas and expect that our students will be able to apply them later on down the road.  Nor is it possible to have true integration without a solid foundation in the skills and processes of each content area.  You must provide explicit instruction first, which is then intentionally and naturally integrated whenever possible.

For example, students must understand the basics of basics of fractions if they are to be successful at integrating musical composition and math equations.  The same is true for the music side: students must understand the basics of rhythmic structure in and of itself before applying it to learning fractions.  We must honor each content for the value it brings to the whole picture.

What we must STOP doing, however, is teaching the puzzle pieces and then never letting students put the puzzle together.  This is the true benefit of STEM and STEAM.  The reason why STEAM is so powerful is that it activates skills, process and application simultaneously through creativity in a way that STEM alone cannot.  We are intentionally working across standards to provide a deeper, richer opportunity for students to truly OWN their learning, rather than playing follow the leader.

Picking up STEAM is certainly going to be a challenge, but with the right lens and purpose, we can all provide the pathway for explosive breakthroughs in our classrooms.  It’s not about a pretty picture or a fun mnemonic device set to music.  It’s about valuing each other and working together to truly create an organic change in education that isn’t driven by anything other than helping students meet their gloriously unique potential.



Looking for ways to move from STEM to STEAM?  Join over 1,000 educators for the 2016 Winter ONLINE Arts Integration and STEAM Conference!  Over 15 sessions that you can watch live or on-demand for a full year. Learn more and register here.