The state of the union for STEAM

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the Texas Science Teachers meeting in Houston. I loved the theme, “Houston, we have a solution”. I was there as part of a group that is investigating education at the intersection of the Science, Arts and Humanities. “What is the state of Arts integration in STEM?” We have been talking about STEM and STEAM for a while. There are whole schools that identify themselves in their name with one of these two labels. Many started their presentations with , “Hi I am Frank and Sally and we are from X school. We are are a STEM or STEAM school.”

While this conference was a focus on science, not on STEAM. a fantastic benchmark for STEAM will be when Arts integration happens every where, not just at a STEAM specific conference of people preaching to the choir. Are we there yet??

There were many sessions that advertised STEAM and I certainly did not get to most of them. The ones I was privileged to attend had some great educators dong excellent work. They were all working hard, trying to be creative, and had the best interest of the kids in mind. However, I wonder if the superficial, add on level of arts integration that seemed to pervade the sessions I attended is indicative of teachers wanting to do something cool with STEAM, perhaps because it is the buzz word of the brings funding, but not really having any idea what that might look like in the classroom. Even more disturbing was that as you got to the higher grades, there was less and less integration.

For instance,:

  • One science museum was very proud of their arts integration by providing coloring books and crayons to the young participants who finished the museum tour early.
  • A middle school example had students draw their view through a microscope rather than using a camera. The intention here was that drawing fulfills the arts compenet of STEAM.There did not appear to be any discussion about the drawing slowing down a learner to take time to really focus on your subject, gradually seeing more and more. It is one thing to integrate arts at a low level because you are a STEAM school. It is something completely different for the teacher knew why they were doing a particular integration so that they can maximize the positive effect and not ruin the effect by not considering the small nuances. It is the PROCESS of drawing that slows the mind and focuses the observations.

In the future I hope to see art and science so intertwined that it is impossible to do one without the other. I do believe that this will be harder, although not impossible, in a high school at the class level because for of course selection, bells, periods and prerequisites. One example is the Insulin project.

I am looking forward to the day when schools and conferences and grants will not need to differentiate between STEM and STEAM, because everything will be so nicely integrated with purpose so that students won’t confine themselves to only being math or science or art students. So much of the creativity and innovation in the 4th industrial revolution will come from the intersection and interplay of the arts, sciences and humanities.

What does it mean to be human?.. Three Cogs

We are planning three different initiatives that should work like cogs of a machine to change the way high school works, at least for a portion of the day. Each cog by themselves are not very valuable, but together they may have power to change kids.

Cog #1- WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE HUMAN? We hope that students and teachers will discover that multidimensionality is a key part of what makes them individually human. I hope that students and teachers will better view themselves not solely as an “Arts, or Language or Science or Trades etc..” – person. A renaissance of transdisciplinary education in a system of silos.

The whole school, every discipline, every teaching style will be able to contribute to a mass understanding of what it means to be human? The First phase will be to explore. What does literature, art, science, poli sci, geography, computer science etc… say about what it means to be human?

The second phase is to communicate our new understanding to the general public and the world. We hope this will result in multiple trans-disciplinary projects. Sometime at the end of May, We would like to close traditional classes and turn the school into a museum, symposium, display of what it means to be human, open to the general public. We would like science fair, Art exhibitions, Ted-style talks and art/museum instillation.

The narrowness of curriculum documents, the idea that high school teachers are content experts, the architecture and the bell schedule all conspire together to make collaboration and trans-disciplinary projects nearly impossible. How can we teach the Whole-Multifaceted-Child in a world of silos? Surely personalization of learning is larger than hoping a student likes on silo during the course of the day. How do students currently get to uncover passions that are outside the few silos presented to a student in a handful of curriculum documents? Perhaps while students are pondering what it means to be human, they will discover what makes THEM individually uniquely human?

We want to change the way that HIGH SCHOOL students interact with themselves, the  public and the world. While this may be not so new from k-8, there are NOT many good examples at a high school level.

Cog #2- O365 How do we coordinate the multitude of connections, knowledge gathering, logistics, and projects that will come from inside our building, out into other schools and to the global community. Until the time we can actually tear down walls and eliminate time tables with groups of co-teaching educators, I wonder if cloud services like O365 will be a step forward to providing a trans-disciplinary work that allows students to use their strengths to explore uncomfortable areas of learning. I believe this the best path forward for technology integration. Rather than finding ways to use technology, often just at the substitution or augmentation levels of SAMR, we are reconsidering the pedagogy first and foremost and then finding the tools that are needed to make it happen. Technology integration for purpose other than expose students to tech. Hopefully this will be a show case of what school might become and give homegrown concrete evidence of the power of technology to allow new forms of learning.

Cog #3. BYOD- Bring Your Own Device. What good is digital infrastructure without hardware to access it. I have been seriously considering BYOD since 2013, but the stars had never aligned between policy, infrastructure and pedagogy. We are in the middle of updating all of the work we did back in the day to make this a reality and change learning at RHS. It feels we are on the precipice. 

Many people believe that we should be making small steps, gradual evolution, and take one cog at a time. In this case, I politely disagree. I believe this is a case of Punctuated Gradualism… a bit like sailing- hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror. In order to hit high on the SAMR model, the cogs are interdependent by design and therefore the introduction of one cog at a time is ineffective.

Suppose we were to introduce one cog at a time….

  • If we try to introduce the project without the technology support, the trans-discipinary and outer connections are in jeopardy. Will people stay in their silos. It will be a nice little project that looks great on the outside with little transformative or persistent change. We are looking at this project as a two year theme to help cement a transformation of change rather than a finite one hit wonder project.
  • If we try to introduce BYOD without a pedagogical purpose or a cloud solution, students will have little educational purpose for their devices and may choose to use their new access for distracting and non-educational purposes. This will become a classroom management issue with a resulting backlash.
  • If we try to bring O365 without the pedagogy or the devices, students will not use O365. It is my personal experience in my classroom, that when students use cloud services in the classroom (the early years of the ILF Teach-nology project) with devices, that they will continue their work at home with the digital resources. It is just an extension of the regular classroom work. However, over recent years, while students still have access at home to the cloud digital resources, because we are not using them individually in a class, they are not accessing it at home either. I am forced to photocopy the digital content for students.

So, it sounds like we need a bold an ambitious project to try and implement all of these at once. This is has potential to be transformative and so many ways to fail. If we fail, we are in exactly the same spot we are now. So it seems we have everything to gain and little to lose. We will need lots of help to provide an education to not only catch up to many places in the world, but to leap frog and show the rest of the world a glimpse of what high school education might be in the fourth industrial revolution.