More and more, contemporary educators are rejecting outdated notions about the way we think and embracing instruction models that span multiple disciplines—particularly curricula that involve the arts.
A lot of the STEM careers that interested students will enter incorporate the arts already, says Sofia De Jesus, STEAM coordinator and mathematics teacher at the St. Paul’s School for Girls. Leaving arts out of a STEM education is arguably a disservice to the students. “If you think about architecture, art is probably one of the most important aspects of it, because you’re trying to not just construct something, but to construct it in a way that’s pleasing to the eye or pleasing to the group or the company that you’re creating it for,” she says. “In engineering and design, creativity is a key aspect.”
At the all-boys Gilman School, STEAM disciplines are layered throughout the curriculum, says Peter Kwiterovich, head of the institution’s middle school. A favorite program among students is called Green Car 2.0 and involves designing a car’s engine, and, later, a stylish exterior.
“Any time the boys get a chance to apply what they learn—and that usually involves creating something—that creates a nice foundation for the learning,” says Kwiterovich. “So any chance we get for the boys to build something—whether in a traditional STEM class or an interdisciplinary class—that makes the learning more fun and long-lasting.”
STEAM programs involving computer-aided design like Green Car 2.0 appeal to female students just as readily. Consider Garrison Forest School, where the girls engage in robotics workshops using Arduino microprocessors—open-source computer hardware and software—to build responsive robot “monsters.”
“It’s like a stuffed animal, but it reacts to a stimulus—so if you touch it in a certain place; it’ll play a song, if you flip it upside down, it’ll turn on lights. So it’s fun,” says Jim Audette, the physics and engineering teacher at Garrison Forest, who also helped to found the school’s maker space.
It’s a paired project, so the students master social interactive skills and how to work in a team environment. “When they encounter a problem, they tend to want to be given the answer,” says Audette. “Our goal is to help them actively figure it out for themselves. Working in a group and part of a team are very critical skills—social arts,” says Audette.
At the Park School, a progressive co-ed institution founded in 1912, their professional development model—one that has been copied in schools around the country—emphasizes intensive teacher training in the new types of technology available to them. “If you want teachers to stay current, and to not only learn the technology but really have the time to think about how they’re going to apply it, you have to create the time and the space for them to be students themselves,” says Dan Paradis, head of Park School. “The teachers’ enthusiasm for technology is infectious.”
And instructors can use technology to gather real-time feedback on their students’ progress in a lesson.
De Jesus at the St. Paul’s School for Girls says she’s partial to e-clickers—handheld devices with A, B, C, D or E options that instantly analyze and grade quizzes. “If I’m trying to assess how my students are doing in the middle of a class, I can do a quiz kind of thing—it takes five minutes, and I can say, ‘Great, let’s move on.’ Or I can see that we need to go back,” she says.
The schools are all “one-to-one” in some way, meaning they provide tablets or computers for students to use individually at some point in the curriculum. Some use Apple televisions, interactive whiteboards, 3D printers, laser cutters or maker spaces. Some even offer low-tech options like woodworking.
But whether the students are learning robotics, or using their tablets to take a virtual tour of the greatest art museums in the world, it’s clear that they are engaging in their learning in unprecedented ways.
“It’s a really cool time to be a student” says De Jesus.