One day at an EASE residency in Brooklyn, as a teacher and I were watching her students concentrate intently on mixing their paint in trays – exploring viscosity, textures, shapes, figure/ground, colors – she turned to me and said, “I wish I were a science teacher.” I turned to her and said, “You are a science teacher; when students explore art materials, they are nothing short of scientists.” In the intense focus of that moment, the happy, subterranean, molten mass of curiosity, exploration and concentration in which children learn knew no bounds and certainly no taxonomies.
That class that day in Bay Ridge was a microcosm of a growing educational awareness called STEM-to-STEAM which is spreading through the country from Boston to San Diego, from the Rhode Island School of Design to Stanford University, from the National Science Foundation to the U.S Department of Education, from the U.S Congress and to our own NY Hall of Science in Queens. STEM is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; the move is to add A, Arts, to STEM, hence STEAM. The reason? How and what students learn in the arts and how and what they learn in the sciences are connected. Not only connected, but greatly enriched in the connections. When the Arts are added to STEM, policy makers use words like “enhanced,” “unlocked,” “engaged,” “strengthened” and “enriched” to describe what they see happening. That what we do in the arts engenders great overlap with science, technology, engineering and math is part of the equation; but how, when we make art, parts of our body and bi-hemispheric brain are engaged is another part of the equation, one that is deemed rich in fresh angles and perspectives that augment innovation and enlist out-of-the-box problem-solving in the Big Four, S, T, E and M.
In EASE, we call many of these connections Ns: Notice and use all the learning opportunities. When we paint coffee filters with liquid watercolor, we learn about the science of absorbency. When we make two lines of tape in floor maps that are the same length, we measure. When we form two groups, we count and divide. When we make a talking stick, we create a turn-taking technology. When we make a funnel to get rice into a narrow-necked bottle, we solve a flow problem. When we play with ribbon wands, we learn about aerodynamics, with scarves, about translucency. When we build with found objects, we gauge height and space like structural engineers…the list goes on.
For sure, there are many and nuanced discussions ahead in the data-hungry pedagogical thinking about STEM and STEAM, arguments pro and con, including questions about the very language we use to talk about this age-old new marriage, a la Leonardo. But it is heartening that this door has cracked open, and it is exciting that we in EASE are providing research results that will most certainly fuel the discussion.
– Erica Rooney, EASE Teaching Artist