Monday, February 1, 2016

STEM? STEAM? Where does ART fit in?

A rare blog post without pictures?  Well - that sounds like a bad idea, so, since in my post title I mentioned STEM and STEAM, here's a pic of a stem, and one of some steam (well actually fog, but it will have to do).
 But now I'm going to get on to what this post is REALLY about, and it will not include any more photos until the end.  Instead, I am going to discuss something that might turn out to be a controversial topic.  Well, it won't be the first time, will it?

I want to begin this blog post with a link to a Commentary column that was in the local newspaper (the Glens Falls Post Star) a couple of days ago.  The columnist is Will Doolittle, and he put into words something that I've thought about but never dared vocalize or share.  Until now.  Here.  Today.

The article is titled "Art is an unmatched subject".   The author is very supportive of art education.  I happen to know that the columnist's daughters are both college students, and while I have no idea what they are studying in college, it might well be art in some form for at least one of them.  I recall seeing their artwork in a prestigious juried high school art show, so I know that art was a large part of their high school life, and that they were very original and capable young artists.  So he, as a parent, certainly recognizes the value that art education has held for his own children.  And I thank him for that.

Anyhow - the article mentions a visit to our lovely little local art museum, the Hyde Collection, made by NY Congresswoman Elise Stefanik.  She and the museum director "made a point to endorse art as a subject for study in high school and college".  But, the article goes on to say, "They couldn't support art on its own, however.  To get art top billing, they've had to hook it to a curriculum superstar... STEM."  (Which of course then becomes STEAM, as he goes on to say.)

Doolittle defends the teaching of art as a stand-alone discipline, rather than a part of this STEM initiative.  He says "Art ...should be the foundation of public education.  Studio art and music should be compulsory subjects along with reading and math, from kindergarten through high school graduation."  What a powerful statement!  He further says "It's too bad that art's advocates feel they have to hitch it to math and technology to promote its importance.  Art came first.  Art is more universal and more useful."  And that, my friends, is the heart of the matter that I've thought but been too timid to admit out loud. 

I could quote the whole article here, but I will share Mr. Doolittle's closing lines: "Art doesn't need to get shoehorned in with the latest academic fad.  Art stands alone, and our students' time cannot be used better than in the study and practice of it."  To this I say, Hurrah, hurrah!!  I should note that he also makes some points about math and such that I don't necessarily agree with completely.  But I do like his statement that "we have gone overboard in our embrace of ...STEM".  Though not necessarily for the reasons he states.

I have been cautious in my endorsement of the concept of STEM and even of STEAM, even as I have sat at state art education association board meetings and listened to STEAM initiatives and so on.  But some of my reasoning is a touch different than his.  Don't get me wrong - I am not anti science and math.  As a matter of fact, I was, along with being an artsy kid, also a kid who excelled in math and loved science.  If my portfolio hadn't gotten me accepted into my chosen college program, I was prepared to instead choose a science-oriented education and career path.  Science is what makes the world tick, and with discoveries being made every day, and still to be made, to me science seems like the most creative of the "academic" disciplines.

But I am concerned about what is left out of STEM besides the arts. The humanities are ignored completely.   How about literature and poetry?  How about social studies/history classes?  Multicultural awareness?

Economics?  Global Studies?  Ancient civilizations?  (I could go on.)  These seem to be getting tossed to the side.  How can we expect today's kids to make our world a better place if we take away the importance of learning about our world works, and what has happened in it in the past that has made it the way it is?  Or if we take away the enjoyment of reading for pleasure?

I am worried that the intense focus on technology/engineering/math, whether through STEM or STEAM, is sucking the humanity out of education.  We need our children to become all sorts of adults, not just engineers and designers, and STEM is only a tiny part of what they need.  We need education to build compassionate adults.

While I agree that it is important to mention the critical roll that art and design play in science/engineering/technology/math, the arts are so much more than simply design.  We are not all interested/involved in art to be designers.  We teach and learn art for so many more reasons - to learn ways to express our humanity - to learn critical thinking and independent decision making - to make social statements - to simply make us happy! Again, to build engaging, compassionate adults, with a joy of the beauty of our world  The arts are the soul of education.  Do they have to be tied to STEM to have value?  Is the focus of education on STEM or even STEAM even a good thing?  What do you think?

I think I've made my point.  I'll close with a few of my old photos, randomly selected to hopefully remind us that sometimes art (and photography can be art, of course) need exist for nothing more than to bring peace and joy.  And isn't that sometimes enough?


  1. STEAM is really design based. I enjoy teaching a few steam lessons but if it was everything, I would just have to call my class Design not art.

    1. I'm glad to hear your response, Erica. I remember you being excited about STEAM, back when we were at the NYC convention. I don't want to take any great STEAM lessons away from anyone, but I'm afraid of it becoming the only answer, and just taking over!

    2. That would be terrible if ANYTHING became THE ONLY answer!!! That is always the problem, people want to do choice, but ONLY choice, or TAB or STEAM or inquiry based instruction. It is overwhelming as a teacher to have to put yourself in a box instead of exploring each box!

  2. We can begin and end every project with pre-writing, planning, and sketching, and end with reflections and critiques at every level. Writing is a huge deficit in student learning, and we can be part of the solution. When the opportunity comes up to incorporate math or geometry, we can stop and take 5 minutes to explore the concepts we often brush over.

    •Making a grid? quickly show how to solve for area or perimeter.
    •Handing out clay? Have student weigh their clay, or make a balance they need to use.
    •Exploring color concepts? Hold up a prism and speak about refraction/reflection/light/etc.
    •Drawing a still Life? Give them rulers and utilize scale, let them measure.

    THIS is what I call a STEAM approach. It's not in lieu of Fine art, but making the natural connections overt.

  3. While preparing to sub today, (I am a retired art teacher who subs for friends now), I spent time looking at STEAM lessons online. I'm with you, Phyl. I felt as though the lessons were pushing STEM concepts at the expense of the art lesson. As the prior commenter mentioned, we can give attention to STEM ideas as they apply, but I haven't seen any whole lessons that embraced the excitement and joy that comes with studying and producing art. During my last few years of teaching, I felt as though there were a lot of changes in curriculum and assessment that were meant as a way to impress the school board. That's important, don't get me wrong, but it sucked the joy out of it for me.

    1. Thanks for your reply! Good to hear from you!!

  4. Phyl, I agree totally. I have suspected that tagging art onto STEM curriculum might have been motivated by an attempt to include Arts in STEAM funding and get more money for underfunded art programs. What do you think?

    1. I think you are probably correct, at least in some situations, but I'd art to be important on its own merits, without having to piggy-back it onto engineering! Sometimes I think the life is getting sucked right out of children's art these days, with all this technical stuff becoming priority.

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. I've heard/seen the quote - "The arts are the soul of education" for a long time and in many places -- who do we credit with it? I can't find an 'author' anywhere???
    reply to

    1. I didn't know I was quoting anyone! If you find out, please come back and let me know! If I knew I was quoting someone, I'd give them credit in the post.