STEM as the Goal. STEAM as a Pathway.

April 10, 2015 at 7:55 am 12 comments

Dr. Gary May, Dean of the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech, is one of my role models.  I’ve learned from him on how to broaden participation in computing, what academic leadership looks like, and how to make sure that education gets its due attention, even at a research-intensive university.

He wrote an essay (linked below) critical of the idea of “STEAM” (Science, Technology, the Arts, and Mathematics).  I just recently wrote a blog post saying that STEAM was a good idea (see link here).  I’m not convinced that I’m at odds with Gary’s point.  I suspect that the single acronym, “STEM” or “STEAM,” has too many assumptions built into it.  We probably agree on “STEM,” but may have different interpretations of “STEAM.”

The term “STEM” has come to represent an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in schools. A recent Washington Post article critiques exactly that focus: Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous.

From Gary’s essay, I think he reads “STEAM” to mean “We need to integrate Arts into STEM education.”  Or maybe, “We need to emphasize Arts as well as STEM in our schools.”  Or even, “All STEM majors must also study Art.” Gary argues that STEM is too important to risk diffusing by adding Art into the mix.

That’s not exactly what I mean when I see a value for STEAM.  I agree that STEM is the goal.  I see STEAM as a pathway.

Media Computation is a form of blending STEM plus Art.  I’m teaching computer science by using the manipulation of media at different levels of abstraction (pixels and pictures, samples and sounds, characters and HTML, frames and video) as an inviting entryway into STEM. There are many possible and equally valid pathways into Computing, as one form of STEM.  I am saying that my STEAM approach may bring people to STEM who might not otherwise consider it.  I do have a lot of evidence that MediaComp has engaged and retained students who didn’t used to succeed in CS, and that part of that success has been because students see MediaComp as a “creative” form of computing (see my ICER 2013 paper).

I have heard arguments for STEAM as enhancing STEM.  For example, design studio approaches can enhance engineering education (as in Chris Hundhausen’s work — see link here).  In that sense of STEAM, Art offers ways of investigating and inventing that may enhance engineering design and problem-solving.  That’s about using STEAM to enhance STEM, not to dilute or create new course requirements.  Jessica Hodgins gave an inspiring opening keynote lecture at SIGCSE 2015 (mentioned here) where she talked about classes that combined art and engineering students in teams.  Students learned from each other new perspectives that informed and improved their practice.

“STEM” and “STEAM” as acronyms don’t have enough content to say whether we’ve in favor or against them.  There is a connotation for “STEM” about a goal: More kids need to know STEM subjects, and we should emphasize STEM subjects in school.  For me, STEM is an important goal (meaning an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in schools), and STEAM is one pathway (meaning using art to engage STEM learning, or using art as a valuable perspective for STEM learners) to that goal.

No one — least of all me — is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.

The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.

via Essay criticizes idea of adding the arts to push for STEM education @insidehighered.

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Media Computation for CS Principles Where Have All The Teachers Gone? It’s not just CS!

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alfredtwo  |  April 10, 2015 at 8:14 am

    I like the idea of STEM majors studying some art and in fact also studying a large variety of other subjects. I think that is part of what makes a university education worthwhile. IT helps people become more well rounded. I wonder if the people who talk about STEAM also mean that students of the arts should study STEM subjects. I think they should as there is as much value in STEM for them as there is in art for STEM majors.

  • 2. Doug Blank  |  April 10, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Part of the confusion over these discussions seems to center on the question: what audience are we talking about? STEAM-as-a-pathway is useful, for a particular audience. But even talking about “STEM majors” seems that we have majors that have specialized too early (perhaps because the pathways were separated in high school). Unfortunately, the idea of STEM seems to have moved the “Two Cultures” even further apart: those that focus on STEM and those that don’t. I’d be more in favor of that “generic idea of a well-rounded education” that includes well-balanced STEM requirements.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  April 10, 2015 at 10:41 am

      There’s a line of argument between what Alfred said and what you said, Doug, that is really interesting. It may be a uniquely American problem.

      I’ve learned from talking with faculty in the UK and Australia that they have a very different model of higher education than we do in the United States. They see secondary school as the place to get broad knowledge, and University as the place to get advanced knowledge in a given discipline. We in the US tend to see a broad knowledge as the goal of an undergraduate liberal arts education. Alan Kay tells a story of an upper-class English woman telling him, “You Americans have the best high school education in the world. It’s a shame that you have to go to college to get it.”

      Perhaps the entire discussion of STEAM vs STEM would never have happened if we hadn’t obliterated arts education from K-12. If *all* students learned the arts in high school, then they would have that breadth when they got to their advanced STEM fields. Students would have the background to blend the Two Cultures (excellent and highly-relevant reference, Doug!), and we would stop talking about getting arts education in front of Engineering students.

  • 4. Franklin Chen  |  April 10, 2015 at 10:42 am

    I disagree with the premise of both “get rid of STEAM” and “STEAM is a pathway”. They are the bad-cop/good-cop pair of the same side: the side that actually believes that the arts are inferior and less important than “STEM”. I cannot get behind this sentiment.

    • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  April 10, 2015 at 1:43 pm

      I don’t think Gary’s saying “get rid of STEAM.” I think he’s saying, “Don’t require STEAM.”

      We require certain classes or topics sometimes because they’re so important. Other times because, without the requirement, nobody would take them.

      I believe that Arts are more likely to be studied and learned without requiring them. I don’t believe that’s true with STEM. I use creative expression in MediaComp as a way to get students to try STEM. Many students have fun with it and enjoy it, but without the creative hook, I don’t think they’d try it.

      I’m not saying anything about importance. I’m completely focused on motivation, engagement, and retention.

      • 6. Franklin Chen  |  April 10, 2015 at 1:53 pm

        “I believe that Arts are more likely to be studied and learned without requiring them.” I believe the opposite. And I believe, anecdotally, that students who view STEM as required drudgery and are bombarded with propaganda that threatens them with lack of a job if they don’t get up to speed, resent this and it affects their motivation to actually understand and excel. Students who don’t view STEM as exciting and fun in itself, the way they might with learning guitar, are already starting out in a bad place. So, these are anecdotes. Where’s the evidence for either of our intuitions?

        • 7. Mark Guzdial  |  April 10, 2015 at 2:00 pm

          You’re right, Franklin — we ought to look for evidence. The only evidence that I have to offer is the story of MediaComp. When everyone took the same intro CS course at GT, the students from Architecture, Business, and Liberal Arts failed at >50% per semester. When we moved to MediaComp, the pass rate rose to 85%. Our evidence (interviews and surveys) suggest that (a) the creative aspects of the MediaComp course were among the most salient for the students and (b) students didn’t understand the relevance of the traditional course. That’s what leads me to believe that the unadulterated CS course was not engaging for students, but adding an artistic component made it more motivating and engaging for students. (And as I said in a recent post, students are still surprised to see MediaComp as “fun.”)

          But this gets back to Doug’s question: what students are we talking about? Maybe the students I was designing for are the ones who are more like my anecdote, and the students who choose to major in STEM are more like the ones you’re seeing, Franklin.

          It is an important question, and we need more evidence.

  • 8. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 10, 2015 at 6:12 pm

    I’m sorry, but I think your role model here has completely misunderstood the point of STEM-to-STEAM. I had a ringside view of that agenda being launched because it was proposed by John Maeda, then president of RISD, down the hill from Brown. John is no luddite; the inside cover artwork of one of his books was _program source_ that he had written.

    His point about STEM-to-STEAM was not that the arts “are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective” and other such mildly condescending pish. Rather, his point was a direct one: the outputs of STEM affect society; they often have to turn into products; and products are social devices. His notion of “arts” was very much the RISD notion, which is one of hands-on workshops and industrial design, as opposed to any navel-gazing kind. His point is _especially_ relevant to the products of computing, which produces an awful lot of user-facing products from iPhones to Web sites to recommendation system. He was saying that an industrial design perspective is vital to making these products good and in not polluting our environments and lives. (For these reasons, I also disagree with your claims about media computation in this setting.)

    I’m not here to defend STEAM. I think Maeda’s claims are overblown: a great deal of STEM is _not_ user-facing, and there’s something quite a bit self-serving about a design school president trying to inject his institution into a fairly unrelated dialog. Still, he has a provocative and interesting viewpoint, and at least it should be represented accurately before being chopped down.

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  April 11, 2015 at 10:41 pm

      You’re right, Shriram — John Maeda’s perspective is different and interesting. It should be represented accurately.

      But what makes that “the point of STEM-to-STEAM”? Because Maeda made it first? So what? I don’t see Maeda’s perspective reflected in any of the STEAM articles I’ve read recently. That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. It’s yet another perspective.

      THAT is the point of my post. It’s just five letters, representing five nouns without a verb in the bunch. People are going to lay a lot of different meanings on it. I offered two that I think are different and better than the one(s) that I think Gary was responding to. Maeda’s interpretation is interesting, too. These different interpretations of STEAM are out there, and when there are proponents for a specific definition (and particularly if those proponents have some political power), it’s worth responding. That’s what I see Gary doing. That doesn’t make any of the definitions wrong. They’re all “STEAM.” They can hardly be called “misunderstanding” Maeda, if none of these people knew Maeda’s idea at all!

      • 10. shriramkrishnamurthi  |  April 11, 2015 at 10:59 pm

        1. If a person defines a term, it’s reasonable to expect others who use it to have some understanding of how it was defined. Do you accept this ignorance as a defense when you review research literature? Well, these articles are also a kind of scholarship. Not to the same high standards as an ICER paper, of course, but that doesn’t mean the erasure of standards, either.

        2. What makes Maeda’s definition interesting to me is that it has some actual content and bite to it. In contrast, the article you pointed to is an example of one that treats STEAM in such a bland way as to be not even worth criticizing—in the “not even wrong” category. Unsurprisingly, its critique of STEAM is equally vague and mushy. Good definitions are worth their weight in gold.

        3. You’re welcome to offer other definitions. However, discourse is not enhanced by willfully overloading existing terms. Heck, since as you point out it’s just five letters representing five nouns, there’s nothing that even determines their order, so why are you piling on? Make your own term! You can choose a food item (MEATS), collective noun (TEAMS), mind-bender (METAS), or even police directive (TASEM). (-: When someone misuses _that_ term, I’ll point to this post so you get credit for it. <-;

  • 11. joshesheldon  |  April 11, 2015 at 11:20 am

    Reblogged this on Computing for Humanity.

  • 12. bobespirit2112  |  April 24, 2015 at 3:59 pm

    Reblogged this on bobespirit2112 and commented:
    I couldn’t agree more than the A is important and serves an important role in STEM achievement. I’m sure early childhood research and approaches such as Montessori would enforce the value of art and some unstructured, open learning approaches. I’ve seen the value in my own daughter from the approach taken in her K-6 education. She’s had teachers who’ve done a great job of incorporating Art projects into STEM learning and it’s been successful in giving her a different “default” approach to her more rigorous STEM work in her later years. She uses more creative approaches to problem-solving than my generation ever did (in my early 50’s) and produces more interesting and impactful analysis and understanding than we did. The A is important.


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