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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

STEM or STEAM? We're Missing the Point

Written by Vince Bertram

STEM education is one of the most talked about subjects in our country today -- and for good reason. From our K-12 system and post-secondary institutions to business, industry and government, most everyone is focused on -- or at least has something to say about -- STEM education as a key solution to improve educational performance and solve the persistent workforce development problems that plague our nation.

But what exactly is STEM education? It's much more than science, technology, engineering and math, which are usually taught as discrete subjects with math down one hallway in the school and science down another. Rather, STEM is the applied, integrated approach to those subjects. It is about using math and science to solve real-world challenges and problems. This applied, project-based way of teaching and learning allows students to understand and appreciate the relevancy of their work to the world around them. Arguably, STEM is at the core of everything.

I'm often asked why science, technology, engineering and math are the only words used to create the acronym, and when Project Lead The Way (PLTW), the STEM organization I am proud to lead, will change STEM to STEAM, STREAM or STEMM -- incorporating art, reading or music into the acronym. If that is the debate, we are clearly missing the point. It's not about adding to the acronym, but instead adding to the relevancy of learning. It's about showing students how technical concepts relate to real-world situations and providing them with hands-on projects and problems that help them apply concepts in a new context. It's about nurturing students' curiosity and helping them develop creativity, problem solving and critical thinking skills. STEM isn't simply the subjects in the acronym. It's an engaging and exciting way of teaching and learning.

On a recent flight to a speaking engagement in California, I had a conversation with the person sitting next to me. She asked me what I did, and when I told her, she remarked, "Oh, you're one of those." When I asked what she did, she explained that she was the creative director for an advertising agency, and the world of STEM seems to disregard, even dismiss, the arts. Moments later, she began working on her MacBook Pro, loaded with state-of-the-art software. So my question to her was "Who do you think made that laptop and developed the software for artists and creators like you?" STEM fields are at the core of everything we do. STEM connects to everything, whether it is the arts, music, sports or agriculture.

Look no further than the materials and technology artists use: computers and graphics, paint, a canvas. Computer scientists develop the graphics technology, chemists work to ensure the right chemical composition to create vibrant colors, and engineers design a stronger canvas that absorbs the right amount of paint. Furthermore, the same creativity that inspires beautiful works of art is the same creativity that has led to some of the world's highest-performing, usable and visually appealing inventions. For instance, the Corvette Stingray, the 2014 North American Car of the Year, is an engineering marvel and one of the top-performing automobiles on the market. But, it's also aesthetically appealing. The same could be said for your new light-weight running shoes, your single-serving coffee maker, or the acoustically designed facilities for your community's symphony orchestra. These are all examples of engineering and the arts working together, and they all resulted from the same design process engineers use to build the world's most advanced fighter jets, develop new energy solutions, and create targeted therapies for chronic diseases.

STEM can be found in virtually every discipline and in every product. STEM is not exclusive to the subjects of science, engineering, technology or math. We must continue engaging students in the STEM disciplines and encouraging them to combine technical knowledge and skills with the creativity that leads to innovative ideas -- ideas that give the arts new technologies, music new instruments, farmers new machines, and our businesses a competitive advantage. Unless we continue building the STEM pipeline, each profession suffers.

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