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At STEAM Schools, Arts Are Woven Into The Curriculum

Families and students stroll in to Hartford Middle School's open house.
Families and students stroll in to Hartford Middle School's open house.

It's a week before school starts, and the hallways are packed at Hartford Middle School's annual open house.

Over the buzz of students, parents, and teachers getting acquainted, seventh grader Molly Blair tells me she tends to get the same question when she tells people she goes to a STEAM school.

"What's that," she said.

She's ready with her standard explanation.

"I just tell 'em what we actually do, what the letters all stand for, then they start to understand it," she said.

The idea behind STEAM - science, technology, engineering, arts and math - is to find ways to integrate the "A" into all class subjects, believing the fusion of arts and science gives students an edge to create and innovate.

Like STEM, it's more a philosophy than a specific curriculum, emphasizing connections across subject areas and teaching kids to take what they've learned in one classroom and apply it in another.

And the arts should share equal status with STEM subjects - says art teacher Kathy Pugh.

"It has to be presented to the kids that it's not an extra, that it is as important of a subject as your math," she said.

At Hartford, some aspect of art is included within the entire curriculum. For instance, students use using proportional ratios to create life-size models of storybook characters, or design a "dream bedroom" complete with 3D floor plans.

Science teacher Jeff Ferrara is a big supporter of the integration of the two disciplines.

"The real art of science is to have that creativity and to have that interest and that ingenuity to say 'man, what happens if I mess with this? What happens if I try this?' and dive in," he said. "You have to have this piece there, which I think follows with art in taking that chance."

But really, that viewpoint isn't that new in education.

It's only been over the past few years that there's been more of a formal push to emphasize STEAM.

Among those leading the way is the Rhode Island School of Design.

It's been an official STEAM supporter since around 2011.

Director of Government Relations, Babette Allina, says several big tech industry players--like Boeing and Intel--have already voiced their support of STEAM.

"They talked about STEAM education as highly relevant to their industry, that creativity was sort of at the center at what they're looking for in their employees," Allina said.

But, overall, STEAM as a bona fide education model is still unproven.

There are no universal requirements, and in Ohio programs don't have to be certified through the state Department of Education. Also, implementation can vary by school and teacher, which makes actual results hard to measure.

Martin Storksdieck, director at Oregon State's Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning, doesn't think there will be a mass movement to integrate the arts with STEM.

"Once you say STEAM should replace STEM, then you say SHEM should replace STEM, and you put history and political science in there," he said.

But the STEAM concept has begun to catch on with both businesses and government.

A STEAM academy in Texas opened with help from a $5 million grant from Texas Instruments.

In Florida, a STEAM school fashion design class is working with NASA to create garments that could be used in space.

STEAM even has supporters on Capitol Hill. The Congressional STEAM caucus - comprised of about 20 House members from both parties - was formed to last winter to advocate for more integration of the arts with traditional STEM subjects.