In spring 2013, Susan Riley used Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky's geometric paintings to teach Maryland public school students how to measure acute and obtuse angles.
Students watched dance choreography and identified the angles of dancers' poses before dancing themselves, freezing in place, and recording their own angles on bulletin board paper. With protractors, they measured angles and colored certain parts a la Kandinsky.
"The entire lesson took just 45 minutes, but when it was over, the cooperating teacher and I noticed that one young boy, who had never spoken in class before, was bursting with excitement," says Riley, a former public school music teacher and CEO of EducationCloset, an arts integration resource website.
The fifth-grade student told Riley that he could finally see what his teachers had been trying to explain. "Those moments are what we live for as teachers," she says. That's partly why she is a proponent of a movement called STEAM, which adds "arts" to the acronym STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
STEM has been a major educational focus on both a federal and state level, to say the least. On March 23, 2015, President Obama announced $240 million in new STEM funding at the 2015 White House Science Fair. According to a White House release, that was the latest in more than $1 billion in STEM funding stemming from the president's Educate to Innovate campaign. By 2018, there will be 2.4 million job openings in STEM fields, predicts a study by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.
On the one hand, integrating arts into STEM sounds like a no-brainer. How could a multidisciplinary approach drawing together the sciences and the humanities not improve upon what either could achieve on its own? But just as STEAM has its supporters, it also has detractors, who believe its impact is greatly overstated.
When the National Science Foundation coined the acronym SMET in the 1990s to refer to science, mathematics, engineering and technology, it laid the foundation for what would become a movement. The order of the disciplines has changed, "perhaps because it sort of sounded like 'smut,'" says David Drew, chairman and professor of education at Claremont Graduate University. But STEM almost inevitably surfaces in nearly every conversation about education today.
The term is only about a quarter century old, but the educational recipe it refers to is considerably older, at least since the launch of Sputnik, says Mark Wolfmeyer, co-author of the 2015 book "Philosophy of STEM Education: A Critical Investigation."
"At the national policy level, STEM is mostly motivated by a concern over preparing this nation's workforce," says Wolfmeyer, assistant professor of secondary education at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. "It is claimed that without a strong STEM education background, a person will not compete in the global job market of the 21st century."
According to NSF data, there has been "sustained growth" in the science and engineering job market for more than 25 years. In 1960, about 1.1 million people worked in science and engineering jobs; by 2011, that number soared to 5.8 million. "As a proportion of all employment, S&E occupational employment grew from 1.6 percent in 1960 to 4.1 percent in 2011," says the NSF report.
But according to the NSF, there's also cause for concern. Just 26 percent of 12th graders scored above or at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math proficiency level, and on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test, the average U.S. student score has fallen below the global average, behind 21 countries.
The term STEM is "very necessary" to direct areas of focus that aren't yet widely accessible to certain demographics, says Lisa Mae Brunson, founder of Wonder Women Tech, a conference organizer in Long Beach, California, which brings more women and diversity to STEAM. Both STEM and STEAM are more than buzzwords, she believes.
"You're creating an opportunity for awareness within particular industries, which incites change," she says.
STEAM is picking up steam
Both people who work in STEM fields and organize STEM curricula tell Brunson they had never heard of STEAM.
"Many aspects of science, technology, engineering and even math have art interwoven throughout their respective industries," she says. "I think we are still discovering what the exact scope of STEAM is and what is included underneath that umbrella."
Bridget Goodbody, an art historian and critic and CEO of Art Intelligence, agrees. Her organization's website self-identifies as a "tribe of art geeks," whose mission is to "revolutionize art and education on a massive scale" through iPad apps that teach science through art.
"If you are a young person trying to find your way in the world, curricula that focus on STEM versus STEAM, or, conversely, art but not science, do students a great disservice," she says. "Technology and design are the heart of the new creative economy. Students need a solid education on both fronts to compete."
STEAM has "picked up steam" when art came to be viewed as creativity broadly, rather than something formal and technological, says Mark Nerenhausen, founding director of Syracuse University's Janklow Arts Leadership Program.
"It is the recognition that without creativity, all the technology training does nothing," he says. "It was not just the technology skills, but the creativity, the insights and the new ways of thinking that make STEM so powerful."
Although a liberal arts education stresses the value of the arts, STEAM forces educators to consider what precise role arts play. "It is not enough anymore to say that somehow studying the arts is good, we have been forced to define just how it contributes and how we make that link in a proactive and intentional manner," he says.
STEAM differs from a classical liberal arts orientation in that STEAM more heavily focuses on the STEM fields, says Drew.
"You can get an excellent liberal arts education without studying much science, technology, engineering, or mathematics," he says. "And we only are talking about the arts writ large, not about history, philosophy, etc."
A critical response
Riley, who taught about angles through Kandinsky's art, is a STEAM supporter, but she admits acronyms can become "alphabet soup."
"There's a reason people dismiss ideas a buzzwords," she says. "The true intention of a concept gets lost in translation to a very surface-level implementation."
Writing for the Royal Society of Chemistry's Chemistry World, science writer Philip Ball takes issue with the claim of the "STEAM not STEM" movement that arts are a necessary component of creativity.
There is creativity in science, according to Ball, and suggesting that science needs to look over its shoulder to the arts seeking a cultural handout "risks reducing creativity in the arts to a mere instrument for technological innovation and thus wealth creation."
The title alone of science writer Brian Dunning's post "Can We Be Clear on Something? It's STEM, Not STEAM" voices his concern.
"Arts are important, but they are outside of STEM for some very good reasons," he writes. "When educators and art patrons talk about STEAM, they are missing the point. The importance of art does not lie in any association with STEM, and arts are important for their own reasons unrelated to the importance of STEM."
Various U.S. governmental agencies have identified STEM fields as areas where the country needs to strategically expand, according to Dunning. Not so the arts.
"It's time to release the STEAM," he writes.
Menachem Wecker is an art critic and religion and education reporter in Washington, D.C. His book, "Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education," was recently published by Cascade Books.