Delivering on the promise of STEAM

The emerging interdisciplinary field of STEAM is rapidly becoming the new darling of education. Seen as a panacea to the challenge of preparing students for a rapidly changing workplace and life beyond school the dispositions of STEAM are driving new teaching programmes. Now is the time to evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes and to define best practice for the meaningful integration of these important disciplines. The challenge is to ensure that students within a STEAM programme are better prepared than they might be if they studied the disciplines in isolation and that in seeking to integrate diverse fields we do not weaken the efficacy of one for the inclusion of another.

Many of the emerging STEAM programmes show signs of forced and artificial integration. Dancing robots may hint at an integration of technology and art and yet a closer examination sees that little is truly understood of the dynamics and human factors which transform loosely coordinated movements into the art form that is dance. That the robot is wearing a dress fails to change this reality. Other disciplines which may be thrust into this dancing robot scenario such as science (perhaps forces or studies of electricity) mathematics (length and time perhaps) are dealt with in equally superficial ways. Asking the students what they are doing and why would reveal the truth. ‘We are making our robot dance’ might be the response but if pushed to define what makes the robot’s movements dance and not just movements they are less convincing.

This style of project, where technology is the driver places the STEAM movement as a whole at risk. A class set of identical projects using Arduino boards and flashing LEDs assembled to match a set of directions involves little real learning and only prepares our children for lives as process workers. Where is the problem finding and solving in projects where the final product or response to the question is known in advance? Where too, is the disposition of the scientist in these projects? What opportunities for mathematical thinking do they offer? Where is the art and when did the mindset of the engineer become reduced to following directions?

STEAM projects, like all good inquiry learning, need to be driven by excellent, open ended questions. Questions that require the learner to think like a scientist as they interpret the world, make observations and conduct experiments. Where the relationships between numbers, quantities and shapes are explored with the mindset of a mathematician. Questions in which an artistic response demands more thought than ‘what colour shall I paint the wheels’ and where the intersection of engineering and technology brings new ways of doing things. Good STEAM projects will demand learning contexts that generate novel solutions made possible only through the collaboration of each discipline and whenever possible should be driven by the questions students discover.

For schools this creates a significant challenge. How do we plan for this sort of project? How do we account for the resources such open ended inquiries will demand? How do we establish the conditions where STEAM thinking may thrive? How do we break down the barriers between the disciplines while preserving their unique characteristics? In many respects the history of modern education stands against these goals. Once the educated were diversely educated and easily shifted their thinking from project to project acquiring and applying the skills required of each as needed. Leonardo da Vinci stands as the archetype of this imagining of the educated individual with skills across disciplines. Specialisation and fragmentation of disciplines has robbed us of this persona and yet it is this style of thinking we now need as we endeavour to bring together multiple modalities of thought in the solving of complex interconnected problems.

Of the five disciplines represented in the STEAM acronym, one is notable for its linguistic properties, that is to say only Engineering is a verb. One approach to bringing the disciplines together is to emphasise this as units of learning are planned. Engineering is that which the learner does and in doing so the knowledge, dispositions and values of the other four letters are utilised in a foundational sense. Complex engineering projects require a multitude of knowledge, approaches to understanding, aesthetic evaluations and applications and demand mathematical thinking. Engineering is also the field least present in traditional school models and as such may be that field which brings the others together as it has less to lose and most to gain in such a recombination of disciplines.

Engineering as the glue of a STEAM programme offers an attractive simplicity in a complex endeavour. Engineering problems could be seen as the catalyst for student inquiry and situated in the real world would bring purpose to the student’s endeavours. Somehow though such a solution seems too easy. If STEAM is dominated by Engineering problems where are the opportunities for science to be the servant of art, or for technology to be the doorway to new scientific discoveries. Such is the complexity of the problem and only direct participation and collaboration by passionate experts who see the strength of both STEAM and its component parts is likely to produce learning opportunities that are truly innovative.

Such collaborations are emerging in industry where the problems and opportunities created by rapid changes are best served by a cross pollination of ideas. Software engineers have a long history of relying on the ‘pattern language’ of architect and designer Christopher Alexander. In attempting to understand complex problems Alexander utilised a ‘pattern language’ to assess the ‘fit’ of a solution (ensemble or form) to its context (field). While Alexander’s work was originally aimed at assisting in understanding the fit between architecture or urban design and the needs of home owners and city dwellers, his approach to understanding complex systems has been useful in the field of ‘user experience’ design in computing. Other examples abound and the results of such collaborations are evident in the products and services we use every day.  As industry seeks to create new markets and better products, understanding what is possible and what best fits the needs of the users and the environment, demands cross disciplinary thinking.

Outside of schools such collaborative efforts are a natural consequence of the problems faced not an artificial drive for integration. Only in schools are the disciplines so clearly defined and divided. What had once served us a practical division of labour now stand in the way of connected patterns of thought where the solution to the problem dictates the best pathway. Finding the right problems and asking the right questions, those which can only be solved with the combined strength of the disciplines of a STEAM programme is the surest way to success.

By Nigel Coutts