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From STEM to STEAM: How the arts are being reintegrated into schools

From STEM to STEAM: How the arts are being reintegrated into schools | "The School of Athens" (1509-1511) by Raffaello Sanzio

The past decade has seen an increase in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning in American schools, but in the push to prepare our students to be competitive in the 21st century, and to measure accountability in K-12 schools, the arts and humanities have suffered greatly. It's not uncommon for schools, particularly in low-income districts, to lose their arts programs because of budget cuts, but recent trends suggest the arts may be making a comeback. Just not as a standalone curricula.

In 2016 alone we saw a lot of fanfare for STEM subjects from makerspaces to the education edition of Minecraft -- all in an effort to garner interests in STEM from students as early as kindergarten. But these initiatives are more than just science and math and engineering. On the surface, the very idea of creating in a makerspace, and designing and constructing a world in Minecraft speak to a larger conversational shift in education by arts advocates to incorporate art into STEM, commonly referred to as STEAM learning.

Despite the benefits of STEM education in developing analytical and critical thinking skills often associated with "hard science" jobs, research shows that an arts education could have complementary benefits to STEM learning.

In Critical Evidence: How the Arts Benefit Student Achievement (2006), Sandra Ruppert expands on the idea of transfer, and summarizes the six types of benefits of an arts education, published in the compendium Critical Links (2002), into three umbrellas: academic, basic, comprehensive -- or the ABCs of arts learning. Transfer, according to James S. Catterall (2002), is the idea that what we learn in one context supports learning in a different context.

From STEM to STEAM: How the arts are being reintegrated into schools | "The Country School" (1870) by Winslow Homer

According to the Critical Evidence report, the arts are "academic" because they can support reading and language skills, especially in pre-kindergarten. When children are allowed to act out their favorite stories during a read-aloud, the dramatic play helps children connect reading to performance, which motivates learning in reading and language comprehension.

The arts are also "basic," according to the same report, supporting development of positive social skills. In one study referenced in the publication, learning to play guitar and performing in front of their peers helped a group of boys living in residential homes and juvenile detention centers boost their confidence. This study suggests that something as simple as having the opportunity to perform may be a powerful tool to help the youth face their fears and realize their potential.

In a 2010 case study of Texas House Bill 3, researchers looked at the evolution and devolution of the arts from John Dewey to the present, with particular focus of how increased accountability measures and high-stakes testing pushed schools to emphasize core subjects, often at the loss of an arts education. According to the researchers, Texas experienced a legislative momentum for arts education in early 2009 when Daniel Pink, a reporter for The New York Times, argued in a presentation to the state House and Senate education committee that today's employers wanted people "who can innovate, communicate, and adapt to change."

Around the same time, TXP, Inc., an Austin-based economic development consultant, published a forecast and analysis that showed a 20 percent growth in Texas' creative sector between 2003 and 2008, among other findings related to the region's economy, that grabbed legislators' attentions. These two instances became a motivating factor to find a way to bring the arts back into the classroom with limited budgets.

As the research team note in their 2010 study, "public education is obsessed with accountability," which typically means data-driven and easily measurable evidence, like test scores. The benefits of creative initiatives may not be easily measurable, but the benefits of an arts education for the youth should not be underestimated, they say.

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