Demystifying STEAM, Part II

I had the opportunity to “demystify the STEAM program” to parents this evening at a Home & School event. Like the kid who gets bullied for his lunch money then thinks of the perfect comeback line as soon as he returns home at the end of the day, I quickly built a new list of the things I meant to say as soon as I sat down. Is it too late to write them down here? 

My mistake

I shared a lot about what STEAM is (this project! that project! here’s how we work together!) but failed to dig into why our process, our goals, our values matter. And although I’ve been writing about it recently and thinking about it all the time, I missed an opportunity to share why our take on STEAM is a uniquely Friends’ Central experience.

Why #1: The virtuous cycle of STEAM

I see self-confidence as one of the pillars of learning, and I see students develop self-confidence in my classroom in a virtuous cycle: when I feel good about my learning, I invest myself in it more; when I invest myself more in my learning, I find success more readily and I feel better about it; when I feel better about it, I invest myself more… you get the picture. Positivity breeds positivity; increased engagement leads to more meaningful learning experiences which lead to further engagement and on and on. It’s a feedback loop that is a beautiful thing to witness, and I love helping students live it and become aware of it as it happens.

STEAM has a virtuous cycle of its own. When students come to STEAM as self-identified artists or programmers or designers or engineers, they eventually discover just how superficial and unnecessary these labels are. For each area of expertise a student brings to the table, being a part of STEAM offers a constant nudge to explore the next letter in the acronym. And for every step toward greater breadth, each student discovers new reasons for greater depth. Curiosity and mastery create a new feedback loop of their own, and the learning fuels itself.

Why #2: It’s only the beginning

And so instead of STEAM being the end-point for Science/ Technology/ Engineering/ Arts/ Math education, I see STEAM as the potential on-ramp for each of them. STEAM is an opportunity for each student to recognize…

  • that their interests don’t exist in isolation;
  • that they might have a new reason they absolutely need to take that _______ class next;
  • that self-expression comes in all flavors and maybe dancers should learn how to program and programmers should learn how to dance;
  • that amazing things happen when ideas collide;
  • that the things they are learning in their classes are relevant and applicable;
  • that they are capable of creating meaning and joy and beauty;
  • that we are at our best when we can work in community.

Why #3: A celebration of diversity

The problem with “STEM” is that it only speaks to one audience. Many can argue that a good engineer should be comfortable in the realms of science, technology, and math. But add the A for art and design and suddenly the doors open to an entirely new audience. Once we add the A, we can’t expect any one participant to be an expert in each of the five areas. Instead each team member offers what he or she can and then revels in the wonder of not knowing — and eventually discovering — the rest. STEAM, unlike STEM, is built on the fabric of collaboration and teamwork. The result is an incredible celebration of diversity and an intrinsic need for inclusiveness. We are all made better by each other.

There’s always next time

Just as each project in STEAM iterates, so too will my ability to bottle the magic I see happen in that classroom. Here’s hoping that this evening’s speaking opportunity #1 will lay the groundwork for improvements whenever speaking opportunity #2 comes along (which might only improve again for opportunity #3).


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