STEM gets an A

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At the most basic level, we learn new concepts best when they are presented in a context we already understand. More than thirty years ago, LEGO® recognized the power of using their bricks, kids’ first building materials, as learning tools. Today, they combine computer connectivity, design, engineering, science, storytelling, and collaboration to create engaging K-12 supplemental teaching resources.

In twenty years, digital technology will be exponentially more complex than it is now. That is the driving force behind the STEM revolution (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) - there’s an urgency in our country to prepare students for a competitive, technology-fueled future. But technology without imagination, science without wonder, engineering without curiosity, and math without connection to real life, won’t solve even part of the problem. 

The big push to STEM education reform comes from the perception that US students are lagging behind other countries in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. In the most narrow interpretation of US ranking on global tests, this is true. But it is by no means the problem that needs solving. 

Mastery of STEM subjects, in and of themselves, do not nurture and spark a curious, creative, and entrepreneurial spirit that is a recognized competency of the US.

The most recognized eternal entrepreneur icon is Steve Jobs. Jonah Lehrer, writing for the New Yorker, provided this insight, “…what set all of Jobs’s companies apart, from Pixar to NeXT to Apple, was, indeed, an insistence that computer scientists must work together with artists and designers—that the best ideas emerge from the intersection of technology and the humanities.”

Jobs’ integrated innovation approach at Apple stands alone in its market appeal on all fronts fostering rabidly loyal customer consumption of the latest, and greatest, at a price-point that represents more than a 30% profit margin for the company. Invention, function, and aesthetic form the triumvirate responsible for Apple’s dominating brand.

So, the STEM approach doesn’t begin to address what will be needed in the future. If it did, Asia would be leading the world, given their demonstrated STEM domination measured by the same tests. But they’re not.

“America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook.
– Fareed Zakaria

Americans have a “What If” mindset that allows us to imagine things we don’t have the skills to create ourselves. That is the soul of innovation and the entrepreneurial spirit that gives our students (products of broad-based learning) the confidence and courage to explore their “What Ifs.”

What do students really need to know

We are struggling with solving the problem of how to educate our children to be employable members of society when we have no idea what kinds of jobs and careers they’re being prepared for. 

65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.
Cathy N. Davidson

Think about the last 20 years. The span of a generation. When you consider the extinction of employment opportunities, and the evolution of digital technology – pervasive in both our professional and personal lives – it’s not difficult to accept that 65% figure. But it is daunting.

What do we know about the future

At the most basic level, we know that future business will be driven by humans in service to humans. Not exactly a spoiler alert, but definitely a simplification that turns the spotlight on our need to understand each other. In subject matter terms, human behavior insights would come from studying the social sciences, and they are not a part of the S in STEM.

Behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, and sociology, together with Arts and Humanities: history, philosophy, literature, provide the keys to the human behavior kingdom.  We can’t make things or provide services for people if we don’t understand who they are, where they come from, and what they need.

It turns out that the US, broad-based approach to education gives students the foundation for critical thinking and creativity that is lacking in the rote, memorization, competitive education system of Asian countries. And why the discussion in Asia about education reform is, ironically, centered around how to make it more broad-based and creative.

STEAM, the Art/Design additive

We live in a designed world. Everything we buy, wear, read, watch, click, swipe, ride in and on as well as our homes, neighborhoods and cities have been thought up, thought through, proposed, approved, financed, and fabricated by a team of diverse professionals. None of this happens without a high demand for critical, creative thinking, or an appreciation for, and understanding of, collaboration.

"Design creates the innovative products and solutions that will propel our economy forward, and artists ask the deep questions about humanity that reveal which way forward actually is.
- John Maeda

The Architecture Resource Center creates hands-on K-12 classroom workshops and textbooks that teach design-thinking and creative problem solving. The ARC uses building and construction design activities as a way for students to apply science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM subjects) being taught at their grade level.

"I learned how to do math much better than I used to know. I learned why you need to know math!”
– a student

Design thinking is the term used to describe the pervasive need in business for people with the ability to imagine, analyze, define, set goals, build, and measure effectiveness. That pretty much describes the innovation journey for any industry, and we all know that in our global economy, companies either innovate or die.

In addition to reinforcing and connecting STEM concepts to everyday life, ARC students also collaborate, and in the process learn about themselves, their relationship to each other, their families, their community, and their environment.

"I learned how to make landscapes, buildings, and use my math in a creative way."
– a student

Preparing for the “What if” way of life

Our future workforce skills will have to be much broader than the current interpretation of either of the STEM/STEAM scopes suggests. There’s no short cut. No simple answer. If anything, instilling a life-long love of learning, imagination, and inquiry will serve our children best as they enter the unknown workforce future.

P21 - the partnership for 21st Century Skills has clearly articulated the skillset needed for future success. They identified 3 types of skills:

Learning Skills: critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, communication

Literacy Skills: information literacy, media literacy, technology literacy

Life Skills: flexibility, initiative, social skills, productivity, leadership

Looking at these three, and the components of them, it’s easy to see why STEM, alone, won’t get us there. STEAM, the addition of art & design, gets us much closer. But what we really need is a thinking-based education system. In addition to the fundamentals, we should be thinking about ways to make subject matter even broader and more stimulating - with the goal of exposing students to “the thing” that switches on their curiosity.

Teaching for the future means looking at the digital habits of students and finding ways to engage them in what they already enjoy. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences flourishes in the digital world by giving students of all ages access to information in ways they can understand, tools to express their creativity, and the ability to connect to anyone, anywhere.

In pursuing answers to their “What Ifs”, students will learn what they need to answer their questions, and to stimulate follow-up questions leading to more mastery and literacy. In ARC workshops, students are stimulated by the visual and collaborative aspects of the exercise. They become excited to use their “math facts” to solve problems in the physical world. Math becomes the tool they use to realize their ideas and answer their “What Ifs.”

"I had no idea that we could figure out the cost for a building with our 4th-grade math.”
– a student

The future of STEAM

One study of arts-based STEM learning for high school students show statistically significant improvements in idea range, problem analysis, and number of solutions generated. Adults in that study showed significant improvement in empathetic listening, mutual respect, trust, and shared leadership.

For ARC programs, the next frontier is proving our concept that design-based curriculum improves students math comprehension and performance in early grades, as well. We have many years of anecdotal evidence from our programs in grades 1-6 to support this claim and have now designed a scientific, evidence-based study that will provide data to support the stories we’ve collected.

It is our hope to provide this quantitative evidence for other educators to use in support of adopting curriculum-based art and design programs to augment learning in early grades. Engaging students with new ways to define and solve problems gives them a process to approach any future problem by applying the critical, creative-thinking skills that will help them navigate the innovative global economy of the changing world.

Darlene Susco