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Leadership Insights

More Than a Trend: Crucial Ways in Which STEAM Shapes Student Thinking

By The Room 241 Team October 1, 2018

STEAM isn’t just the flavor of the month in education. It’s a crucial component toward building critical-thinking and creativity skills for our nation’s learners. For the evolving world of work, students need to develop these skills so that they become curious, analytical thinkers who are our future problem-solvers. STEAM-centered learning provides a powerful avenue for building those skills.

Critical thinking

The present and future economy demands a new set of skills from learners and requires that students evolve from passive information receivers to active learners and thinkers. STEAM projects require students to systematically think through problems, applying the information they learn along the way about technology and engineering to figure out the best solutions.

In a recent NPR interview, Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, spoke about STEM education saying students can become “savvy about science” so that they can “really look at claims that are being made and say whether or not these are reasonable.” And, Malcom says, “that’s where we need to get everybody.”

“Teachers are preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. If we don’t know the coding language they are going to be using in 15 years, we need to teach them to be fluid and think critically,” says Amy Brown, a K-12 education strategist. “The whole idea with STEM is that students need to figure out solutions to problems. They need to be the ones who are using critical-thinking skills and innovation. And, as teachers, we really have to give students the opportunity to be innovative. It’s not something that can be delivered to a student standing in front of the classroom.”

The future of education and work

In the last 20 years alone, we have seen an expansion of technology unlike any other era before. Jobs are automating and many are quickly becoming obsolete. The idea that education can remain unchanged amidst this shift is a dangerous fallacy and a disservice to students.

STEAM education ensures that students are prepared for a new world. “When the economy changes, so must education,” says Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, in his book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. “We educate people in the subjects that society deems valuable. As such, in the eighteenth century, colonial colleges taught classics, logic, and rhetoric to cadres of future lawyers and clergymen. In the nineteenth century, scientific and agricultural colleges rose to meet the demands of an industrializing world. In the twentieth century, we saw the ascent of professional degrees suited for office work in the corporate economy.”

The skills that workers need today — and will need tomorrow — are more different than they’ve ever been. Graduates are expected to collaborate, ideate, design, and effectively communicate. These are all skills that can be developed through STEAM learning.

“Liquid skills include the ability to work with others, verbal communication, creative and critical thinking, active listening and active learning, and a disposition towards lifelong learning,” says Professor Peter Charles Taylor of Murdoch University in Western Australia. “These capabilities are deemed to be more important than high academic achievement.”

Getting creative

STEAM education goes beyond just teaching the skills of science, technology, engineering, and math while incorporating the arts into multifaceted learning experiences. STEAM integrates creativity and design thinking to drive innovation and discovery.

“STEAM curriculums are about so much more than just teaching students to paint or draw,” says Carrie Maslen, consultant and former vice president of sales operations for Samsung Electronics America. “While fine arts programs are beneficial to students regardless of where they come from or how they learn, implementing any form of art into your curriculum encourages students to think differently or approach a problem in a new way. I think a big difference in STEM vs. STEAM is the ability to not only know the “hard sciences,” but to be able to communicate more effectively. The “A” — whether achieved through fine arts, liberal arts or both — adds the ability to look at a situation from new and creative angles and express concepts and information clearly.”

In terms of how creativity impacts the brain, a creative act is a result of the interaction between the frontal lobe (where we come up with new ideas), the temporal lobe (where we judge ideas), and a release of dopamine. When students learn, that creates neural pathways in their brains, which are reinforced when used. Information is retained if there’s an intellectual or emotional connection to it. Although our brains often prefer patterns and predictions, creative thinking “requires establishing new pathways and generating new and unusual ideas.” By engaging in activities such as STEAM projects that promote creative thinking, students can grow accustomed to thinking of new possibilities and making meaningful connections vs. relying on established neural pathways. Over time, and with practice, creative thinking can become a habit.

STEAM in action

Educators are integrating STEAM teaching in classrooms across the nation through makerspaces, interdisciplinary projects, and hands-on learning. “While it’s relatively straightforward to teach students hard facts or skills, teaching creativity and other soft skills can be more difficult,” says Maslen. “One of the best things educators can do is to foster an environment where students feel free to express themselves. Many concepts from the Design Thinking philosophy can be practiced to get new ideas flowing, including reframing a challenge, or idea mapping. After all, the inherent value in STEAM is helping students develop creative leadership skills and more efficient ways to communicate, in addition to the methodological skills STEM provides.”

CEO of Ideo and author of Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, Tim Brown, sums up a realization that many educators, schools, and districts have had: “In order to produce 21st-century learners, we could not use 18th-century methods.”

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