Home Susan Yerkes Building STEAM: Emphasizing art education

Building STEAM: Emphasizing art education


Creativity, flexibility, imagination and inspiration are modern-education buzzwords. While standardized testing (and teaching to the test) still play a powerful role in most schools, there’s also a lot of emphasis on qualities not so easily quantified.

In a global community, where thinking outside the box is at a premium, it helps to see the world from new perspectives, plus experience familiar objects and ideas in different contexts.

Enter the arts.

When considering column topics, a friend and very creative educator suggested I check out the McNay Art Museum’s annual Summer Teacher Institute, this year with the theme “Building STEAM.”

You’ve probably heard about STEM – science, technology, engineering and math courses — which arose as a powerful acronym in education circles in the early 2000s. The importance of knowledge in those areas, with future jobs in mind, led to an increased prominence in related campus courses, with good reason. While STEM is now considered a critical piece of the process, the more recent acronym STEAM, which incorporates the arts as well, has gained traction among educators, too.

Rosemary Hickman, Semmes Foundation education manager at the McNay, organizes the museum’s workshops and events for teachers, students and adults. The three-day “Building STEAM” seminar drew nearly 50 instructors from 15 school districts. Presenters and audience members included teachers of math, social studies, history, language, science, art and music. I found it mind-expanding, and the educators I participated in exercises with said they did, too.

We recreated a Picasso drawing in a multimedia relay race, discovered geometric principles of symmetry with Post-its on graph paper, and much more. Activities required creative collaboration to solve problems. Stephen Parker, a brilliant Austin artist and musician, demonstrated cool classroom projects based on science, from making a banana into a computer keyboard to composing music using hand-controlled, programmed drones.

“No matter what your subject is, the highest level of anything is creating something new, inspired by new knowledge,” Hickman said. “STEAM and STEM coexist here. Especially with subjects like art, teachers often have to legitimize what they do, and help raise awareness of the essential nature of art and creativity.”

The program was hip, fun and revelatory. Asked in a closing session to jot down unexpected things about STEAM, responses included: “I was surprised how easily I could incorporate science and math into English lesson plans with STEAM” and “Art + Science = poof!”

According to research cited by the Americans for the Arts organization, using the arts in teaching can make difficult concepts easier to understand through visuals. Arts help children develop motor and social skills, multicultural awareness and inventiveness. Art, music, drama and dance provide challenges for learners at all levels, and boost critical thinking and observational acumen.

If incorporated into teaching other subjects, they can become amazing catalysts. The arts can take you outside the traditional boxes.

When students begin to invent and collaborate with different materials, to make new things, there’s a sudden, exciting synchronicity. The ideas keep popping and bouncing off each other. It’s learning, it’s creating and it’s communicating, and the insights just keep coming.

If STEAM is indicative of where education is headed, I like its future. Full STEAM ahead!



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