STEM Needs a New Letter

By Jessica Lahey
Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

My father, a retired industrial designer, claims that the seeds of his career were sown during the hundreds of hours he spent building soapbox derby cars with his dad. My grandfather taught his sons every step of building a car in their pursuit of a national soapbox derby championship. By the time they qualified–my uncle Steve in 1957 and my father in 1959–they were skilled in every aspect of design and construction. My father describes their hours of work together as some of the most enjoyable and rewarding of his life:

Dad taught me that a methodology could be applied to any creative task. Ideas could be developed, finalized, and evaluated following a set of logical steps, and he taught me to sketch ideas, make construction drawings, and evaluate concept models. The build required me to master skills and develop an understanding of materials. Dad taught me to work with wood, metal, and plastics, and I learned how to weld, solder, machine metal and wood, upholster, and paint. I completed these tasks under his watchful eye, until I had mastered the tools and the process.

Years later, when my father went to graduate school for his master’s in industrial design, he had a leg up on his classmates when it came to the most important part of the design process: turning ideas into useful products. The tools of his profession may have changed; foam-core models labeled with Letraset have given way to digital 3-D rendering, but the process of design and product innovation remains the same.

My father’s experience highlights an important truth: Creativity alone does not foster innovation, nor do abstract scientific or mathematical concepts. Innovators also need to know how to render those creative ideas into working products that can be put into use.

In order to bridge the chasm between abstract idea and utility, some educators are advocating for an expansion of the popular STEM acronym—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, the list of skills many experts believe more students need. They believe STEM should include the letter 'A' for "art and design." As Margaret Honey, CEO of the New York Hall of Science commented in an STEAM workshop at the Rhode Island School of Design, "It’s not about adding on arts education. It’s about fundamentally changing education to incorporate the experimentation and exploration that is at the heart of effective education."

A few pioneering STEAM teachers are doing just that. Christine Mytko, a middle-school science teacher in California, has incorporated art and design into her STEM curriculum through "Maker Mondays." These Mondays offer her students an opportunity to apply the scientific concepts they have learned in class independent projects in fabrication or physical computing. It is, as Mytko describes it, “a beautiful mess.” Maker Monday projects are not graded, and Mytko believes that without the extrinsic pressure of a grade, her students feel the freedom to take risks.

I asked Mytko about her teaching philosophy, and why she believes scientific and mathematical concepts are only a starting place in the education of innovators:

My goal is to have students experience concepts in science, and wrestle with their implications. I'll admit, I didn't realize how important that "A" was when I started out. However, I learned that the "A" could be systematic, not just something you come to a random consensus about. So, I asked my students to pause and focus on design. The students have learned how to...identify criteria and constraints and systematically evaluate designs. At the end, all students were able to see that the collaborative whole was better than any individual design.

Mytko’s main goal within the STEAM curriculum is to help her students "become effective, collaborative problem solvers who do not back down from a challenge, but instead use strategies and resources to break such a challenge into manageable parts." She seems to be achieving those goals.

STEAM is gaining, well, steam as a curriculum, even on Sesame Street. The 43rd season of Sesame Street integrates art and design in to its existing STEM content with the goal of illustrating how art and design can be used to solve real-world problems.

The education Mytko and other STEAM teachers seek to impart to their students is, at its core, much like the education my grandfather handed down to my father as they designed and built those soapbox cars. This sort of education has the potential to fuel educational success, create lasting passion for the process of innovation and competence in its demands, and in the case of my father, shape a career.

To that end, my father has taken on the legacy my grandfather began 60 years ago in their garage. He has taught my son how to build a chicken coop, replace hinges, whittle magic wands, and soon they will be building a camera together. My son wanted a camera and my father wanted a project they could work on together, so he purchased a Bigshot camera kit. These kits are designed to teach children how to assemble a digital camera from the lens wheel to the power generator. The child learns about the science of gears and electrical current, and then applies that knowledge to create something useful, in this case a digital camera.

STEM education is getting a lot of money and attention, for good reason. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16 percent of American high school seniors are proficient in mathematics and are interested in a STEM career. Even among those students who do go on to pursue STEM fields in college, only about half go on to work in a STEM career. To push back against these trends, President Obama seeks to move American students "from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math," and to that end, he has proposed an increase to STEM funding in 2014 to more than $3.1 billion.

Turning STEM into STEAM will make this effort even more worthwhile. As Obama stated in 2011, "We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time. We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world." Given a few more teachers like Christine Mytko, we might just be able to fulfill that mandate.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/stem-needs-a-new-letter/282973/