Op-Ed: The importance of a STEAM education

"Add art to STEM and you get STEAM. Art is the liberating principle that guarantees scientific progress. Nothing was ever invented or perfected without an artistic mind."

Stock photo/Pixabay

By: Gloria C. Endres

Many thanks, as always, to reporter Grace Maiorano for her cover story on a 33-year-old event sponsored by global healthcare company GSK, partnered with the Franklin Institute: GSK Science in the Summer (July 24). The purpose of this program is to inspire children in grades two to six to imagine a future in a science-based career. These careers are identified by the initials STEM for science, technology, engineering and math. They are linked due to the interdisciplinary skills required by all of them.  

As Ms. Maiorano reported, these activities take place in libraries throughout the city with two-day sessions spread out over the summer. She highlighted one particular session on the human body, featuring hands-on experiments with objects simulating the digestive system under the supervision of instructor Jonathan Nguyen, a high school anatomy and physiology teacher.

Her description of the hands-on activities made me nostalgic for my long career teaching in local schools for the Archdiocese and the School District of Philadelphia as well as my years supervising Temple education majors in a math/science practicum. 

Mr. Nguyen understands how children learn concepts best – through active learning. They must experience the concept at work in real life. His well-organized experiments with materials mimicking the digestive system give the students a much better idea of how the system actually functions. 

One very disturbing part of the story is the number of children quoted in the piece who lament not having this kind of science instruction as part of their regular school experience. Thankfully, I retired before teaching to high-stakes testing became the norm and was always able to find time to do class projects and units developing science concepts. Fortunately,  most of the time, I also had the resources to obtain the necessary materials. There is no cheap way to do authentic science. You need real caterpillars to teach the life cycle of the butterfly, for example. You need real rock collections to teach the difference between sedimentary and igneous rocks. You cannot lecture about plants without planting real seeds in soil. That is how students fully comprehend the material. 

There is, however, one element to encouraging science careers that I would add to the mix. It is what I consider the overarching discipline that influences all the others. That element is art. Art is the creative way of looking at things from all angles. Even the models that Mr. Nguyen used to teach the digestive system required three-dimensional pieces constructed by the students to simulate those parts of the body being studied. 

It is one thing to understand established concepts, but quite another level to imagine new concepts. Leonardo Da Vinci, for example, by studying birds in flight, could visualize humans with wings and sketched flying machines centuries before they were invented. Author Jules Vern dreamed up at least eight inventions decades before they existed, including the submarine, television and rockets to outer space. 

Children must be encouraged not only to understand nature but to use their knowledge and creative minds to invent new ideas. That can best happen by encouraging their artistic abilities. Teaching music is one way, certainly, to incorporate several science concepts plus mathematics at once, such as: the physics of sound, the math of meter, the senses of hearing and touch. Combine all that, and they might even compose new music.

Add art to STEM and you get STEAM. Art is the liberating principle that guarantees scientific progress. Nothing was ever invented or perfected without an artistic mind.