STEAM education can be looked at through many lenses, but there is a tendency to view it primarily through the needs of classroom teachers. There is a good reason for this as teachers ultimately make STEAM happen. But STEAM isn’t a lesson. STEAM isn’t usually a class. STEAM is a culture and culture is systemic.
What does that mean exactly? It means that every organization has a culture set by patterns formed by interrelating and interconnected attitudes, goals, norms, and practices. If a culture is not intentionally set, it will develop organically.
An organization’s culture is nurtured by the vision and practice of its leadership. The leaders in a STEAM education program depends on the scope, ranging from a teacher practicing STEAM in their room to a superintendent overseeing a division-wide program. When resources improve, and the impact of the program grows with the scope, the values and practices necessary to grow an effective STEAM program remain similar.
Here are the attributes of a positive STEAM culture:
STEAM is successful when leaders value all the STEAM subjects. In most states, only two of the STEAM disciplines are assessed, but they all have equal value. This belief can be demonstrated in many ways, but an understanding that each of these disciplines has their own standards, body of knowledge, and vocabulary is an important start. It’s also important that the teachers of these subjects are regarded as professionals with valuable contributions.
STEAM is authentic when leaders value student engagement. We know that students retain knowledge when their learning is active. We know that students develop a deeper understanding when what they learn is meaningful to their lives. To support active and engaged learning, leaders need to examine their expectations of what a classroom looks like. Active students are active! They are often loud and sometimes messy. Students need to be empowered to delve deeply into their learning and make connections to the problems they face in their lives and non-academic interests.
STEAM flourishes when leaders value collaboration. Students need to be encouraged to collaborate and teachers need opportunities to meet regularly to hone their own collaboration skills, as well as to devote time to developing cross-disciplinary projects.
STEAM is transformational when leaders value higher order thinking. Certainly, we all want our students to pass their standardized tests. But is that really our goal as educators? STEAM education turns Bloom’s Taxonomy on its head! Students still get to the remembered knowledge at the bottom of the learning pyramid, but they get there by creating, evaluating, analyzing, and applying the understanding of that knowledge— not through rote memorization. This takes time and training for teachers to change their practice.
We can create a positive STEAM culture, school by school, district by district, if we all work together to recognize that there is knowledge, skill, and vision that must be shared to make it happen!
Andrew Watson has co-developed STEAM programs into over a hundred schools. He has served in advisory roles to the National Portrait Gallery, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Art Education Association, Americans for the Arts, and the Congressional STEAM Caucus.