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David A. Sousa and Tom PileckiBack to OpinionDavid A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki

Can STEM Really Succeed?

In 2006, the U.S. National Academies expressed  concern about the declining state of education in the United States in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It recommended improving K–12 science and mathematics education, providing additional training for teachers in these areas, and increasing the number of students entering college for STEM-related degrees. In response, Congress passed the America COMPETES Act in 2007, authorizing funding for STEM initiatives from kindergarten through graduate school. Numerous school districts have obtained federal and state funding to support their proposals to increase the quality of STEM education.

Test results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed only a slight increase in eighth grade science scores over 2009. When the NAEP tests asked fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders to use higher-level problem-solving and critical-thinking skills in both real and simulated laboratory settings, they performed poorly. In addition, less than one-third of eighth graders performed at what the NAEP considers to be “proficient” levels of achievement.

If we expect STEM to improve student learning, curriculum must become more  relevant, and instruction concentrate more on creative and real-world problem solving—in other words, what working scientists and mathematicians really do.  How do we do this? What type of activities increase student engagement, raise motivation, focus on relevant issues, and, most importantly, develop creativity? Hmmm, don’t the arts develop creativity?

The main objective of both art and science is discovery. Scientists and artists work creatively toward a product. Now, neuroscience adds its discoveries to the mix. Implications from recent brain research findings—like the exciting evidence that creativity can be taught—further support the integration of arts-related topics and skills into STEM courses,  adding the A for arts to become STEAM.

Integrating arts-related skills and activities into STEM courses is  one very effective way to enhance student interest and achievement. However, because there are only so many hours in the school day, one consequence of increasing instruction in the STEM areas has been to decrease instructional time in stand-alone arts classes. Tight budgets and high-stakes testing in reading and mathematics have furthered  this regrettable trend. Yet, the thorough study and application of the scientific, technical, and mathematical principles embodied in the STEM subjects require skills that can be significantly enhanced by training in arts-related areas.

Our current school culture places heavy emphasis on convergent thinking, whereby the student pieces together relevant facts, data, and procedures  to arrive at the single correct answer. This is generally the  one type of thinking that is measured in standardized tests because there is only one answer, making it easy to machine grade while reinforcing the need for test reliability and consistency. In divergent thinking, on the other hand, the student generates several ideas about possible ways to solve a problem, often by breaking it down into its components and looking for new insights into the problem. For example, after using divergent thinking to create different melodies and harmonies, the composer then needs to use convergent thinking to put that music to paper, using strict rules of musical notation, so that other musicians can correctly play the composition. Divergent thinking works best with poorly defined problems that have multifaceted solutions as, for example, dealing with over-population, climate change, and environmental pollution, . This is the type of thinking that is typical of artistic activities.

The focus on convergent thinking may be extinguishing creativity in our students. Research suggests that consistently reinforcing neural pathways with convergent thinking activities may be limiting the pathways that support creative and divergent thinking. On the other hand, integrating arts-related activities into STEM subjects offers many cerebral advantages. Artistic activities engage the young brain and improve cognitive, visual, and spatial processing. They help young minds perceive how systems interrelate, and that problems can have multiple solutions. Research findings show that artistic endeavors improve long-term memory, increase student motivation, promote creativity, advance social growth, introduce novelty into lessons, and reduce stress. Furthermore, STEM teachers who have developed STEAM lessons say it makes teaching more interesting and rewarding for them as well as for their students.

There was a time when all students were exposed to the arts in a meaningful way  during a typical school day. The basketball player ran from the courts to the orchestra rehearsal, while  the cheerleader balanced chorus duties with writing for the yearbook, and, somehow, the idea of including recess did not pose a problem. It is fascinating  that Americans who grew up in this liberal arts system created the many infrastructures that to this day, support our country.  Yes, a solution to the challenges that STEM is trying to address has been in front of us all the time: Add the arts!

It is time for our policy-makers to recognize that the excessive emphasis on high-stakes testing is robbing our teachers of the time and support they need to make those STEM to STEAM  adaptations. When policy-makers and school administrators encourage realigning the arts with the STEM areas, they put trust back in their teachers’ ability to conduct more exciting, creative, and successful learning experiences for their students.

David A. Sousa and Tom Pilecki the authors of From STEM to STEAM: Using Brain-Compatible Strategies to Integrate the Arts

Dr. David A. Sousa is an international consultant in educational neuroscience and author of seven books that suggest ways that educators and parents can translate current brain research into strategies for improving learning. A member of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, he has conducted workshops in hundreds of school districts on brain research, instructional skills, and science education at the Pre-K to 12 and university levels.

Tom Pilecki has been an innovator in arts education since 1970. He has taught elementary school in Pennsylvania where he was also in charge of the music and art curriculum and choral music programs. As an elementary school principal for 16 years in the South Bronx, he founded  St. Augustine School of the Arts, a neighborhood, arts-based elementary  school where every child had choral and instrumental  music as well as art, dance and piano  – and this was not a “magnet school”. This work was featured on The Today Show, McNeil-Lehrer report and 60 Minutes and was the subject of the Sundance Award- winning documentary Something Within Me. He built strong arts-integrated programs which have been extremely successful in school and in after-school programs in Palm Beach County for the past 13 years, serving over 100,000 youth and hundreds of  teachers and after school professionals. 



  • Peter

    Important and relevant argument for the arts. Divergent thinking is critical for our students.

  • OrpheusRising

    Bravo. STEAM is a terrific construction rooted in the ability of the arts to add to the power of mind. “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.”– Albert Einstien

  • Shelagh Dufault

    Absolutely brilliant! Thank you for clearly stating the obvious. I’ve been teaching art as a relaxation technique to a special needs population since 1998. I’ve witnessed miracles through adapting music, singing and mindfulness exercises to my painting & clay sculpting classes.
    I work with a special needs charter high school & believe me when I say this is a tough room. In the beginning some of my students did not smile, ever. Or laugh.
    I work with the energy in the room- we may do some stretches & laughter ‘yawning’ to bring heads up off of the desks… This simple exercise cracks everybody up. Laughter in the classroom is music to my ears!
    The real magic is in the act of creating something from a lump of clay… or splashing color onto canvas. If someone makes a ‘mistake’ I help that student to work with it, ‘Keep going, let’s see where we can go from here…’
    Life skills in an art class… Who knew?
    Thank you Dr. Sousa & Mr. Pilecki- a timely piece!

  • Miguel Ferreira

    “It is time for our policy-makers to recognize that the excessive emphasis on high-stakes testing is robbing our teachers of the time and support they need”

    Absolutely. Teachers are already clamoring for STEAM to be adopted, perhaps it’s time to listen to those leading the classrooms instead of those sitting in Tallahassee and Washington behind desks?

  • Scott Boyce

    Amazingly brilliant! Thank you for this.

  • Martin Daly

    The over reliance on high stakes testing with its emphasis on finding the one correct answer is robbing students and their teachers of the opportunity to learn through creative, engaging, and rigorous lessons that encourage discover rather than rote learning. This book could not have come at a better time as schools across the country are “racing to the top” and leaving arts based lessons and student creativity behind — every decision maker from Arne Duncan to the local superintendents should read this article.

  • Sylvia Moffett

    Great article! I look forward to reading their book and am honored that Tom Pilecki has been changing lives for the better through the arts for many years in my city!

  • mj anderson

    Great article!! Well stated!!! Our children are the only future this planet will ever have. Its about time we started treating them as the brilliant and many faceted jewels they are.

  • Joseph Pubillones

    Fantastic…about time someone shed light on arts education.

  • David Ortlieb

    Our current educational system encourages students to only memorize and learn about what’s already been done. The arts encourage one to think of what has not yet been done and its potential breakthroughs. Finally, voices of reason who actually understand the human brain and the educational possibilities!

  • Maureen Coffey

    Maureen Coffey

    I commend you for this excellent and inspiring article. In my roles as teacher, counselor and public school administrator, I have seen first hand, the great value of the arts in our children’s classroom educations, i.e., increased student engagement and motivation, increased pride in personal learning and achievement, increased social growth, increased positive student interactions and acceptance of others. Sadly, as district budgets continue to be slashed and high stakes testing increased each school year, students’ creativity, spontaneity and divergent thinking skills in classrooms across our nation continue to falter and decline. As this hands-on, brilliant and so very timely article clearly begs – for the sake of our school children – we must add the arts!

  • Maureen Coffey

    Maureen Coffey
    This is an excellent and inspiring article. In my roles as teacher, counselor and school administrator over the years, I have seen first hand, the great value of the arts in our children’s education, i.e. increased student engagement and motivation, increased pride in personal learning and achievement, increased positive student interactions and acceptance of others, etc. Sadly, as district budgets continue to be slashed and high stakes testing increased each school year, opportunities for student creativity, spontaneity and divergent thinking skills in classrooms continue to falter and decline. As this hands-on, brilliant article so clearly begs – for the sake of our children – we must add the arts!

  • Wood Kinnard

    What an incredible statement in support of the arts in public schools. It confirms our beliefs and inner most feelings about the value of arts and music as a benefit for all. Congratulations on a study well conducted and presented!!

  • Katie

    This is so important for everyone to read! At a time when art and music programs are quickly dying off, this book couldn’t come at better time!

  • Kirk R.

    The concept of adding the Arts to the mix is the next logical step that will help improve education and allow our students to gain competitive leverage in a global market place. STEAM will be the new brand that identifies the U.S.Education system.

  • Brian D.

    Excellent article! We need this kind of perspective as we discuss improving our failing educational system. As a practicing engineer for nearly 30 years, I see every day highly intelligent technical professionals who have had little or no exposure to the arts. As a result they may have a fine understanding of their technical discipline but many never learned to THINK. Integrating the arts in traditional curriculum is a requirement for effective learning, not optional.

  • Mark B

    This book is a God send! May it take root and bear fruit! With so many budget cuts in the arts and music our youth are being deprived of a treasure, an innate expression of their creativity. The opportunity to express themselves through the arts cannot be emphasized enough. Kudos to Tom Pilecki and David Sousa for their book, for this positive affirmation.

  • Russell Gnann

    Thank you for this! I feel the need to teach students how to achieve creative solutions to problems is crucial to today’s education. Art seems to have become a missing dimension in the learning process. I truly hope that STEAM is embraced by educators everywhere. My thanks to David Sousa and Tom Pilecki for writing this book and bringing more light to this need in education.

  • Ellen Brett

    Thank you for writing this book that will help others see what is already clear to many educators. We need to give our students choices and opportunities to explore and discover rather than tell them how they should learn. Integrating the arts-related activities into our schools can be the norm, not the exception. We need to get our schools out of the habit of teaching to the test and encourage real thinking, expression, and meaningful collaboration between disciplines.

  • Chip

    There is absolutely no doubt a well-rounded education produces a more adaptable, well-rounded individual. Tom and David’s work should be brought immediately to the forefront of our discussions towards the shaping of our current educational system. Linear or convergent thinking has its place of course but an emphasis on this alone short-changes us as individuals and as humans as we are all capable of so much more. Cut-backs in arts education limits us as a fully functioning society, not only as to how we develop as individuals and bring divergent approaches to problems solving but also limits the very health of our economy which tends to flourish when original ideas and creative directions help us to make substantially positive changes in our standard of living and mental well being. Bravo to Tom and David for bringing this to light!

  • Robert Bruno

    This country will spend a fortune on athletic program, because athletics is thought to teach children lessons they will need throughout their lives, regardless of how many injuries they may sustain in the process. Yet, regardless of how many studies show that there is a strong positive correlation between children who are involved with any arts program, and high academic achievement, the first item considered, in school budget cuts, are the arts programs. Go figure! This book should be mandatory reading for any school board member.

  • Lee Stuart

    One of the tragedies of the high stakes testing is that a lot of what made school fun for my comrades who didn’t eat up science and mathematics the way I did has been taken away: arts being at the top of the list. There are all kinds of ways to learn, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that learning to read and play music helps both in reading literature and understanding math. But arts are important on their own merits, not merely as an assist to other subjects.

    In the district where I now live (ISD 709, Duluth, MN) I attended a recent visioning process for our public schools. Part of my vision, drawing all the way back to St. Augustine School of the Arts (where, full disclosure, I was a fund raiser and science teacher for a short time) was to restore arts to a primary place in the curriculum. The facilitator said something along the lines of, “we already have specialists who teach arts once a week, is that what you mean”. It took me three tries to say that I wanted arts given the same emphasis as science, math, history – all called the “core” curriculum. It was absolutely scary that it was so hard for me to get across the simple concept that arts have been, are and should always be, a core part of not only the curriculum, but what makes us truly human.

    Thanks to Tom and David for this book!

  • Neil Capozzi

    Awesome work. Thanks for the enlightenment!

  • Steven Royer

    Brilliant thoughts and cutting edge stuff. A wonderful positive view to shape the education of young people in new and exciting ways…enhancing both critical thinking and creativity.

  • Doug Laven

    The future is looking brighter.

  • Karen Laven

    The STEAM concept is a much-needed lifeline for students and — as the authors deftly pointed out — society as a whole. Fabulous article; may it be the impetus to enrich STEM for the far greater good.

  • Paul P.

    Tremendous article. I had not heard of the concepts of divergent and convergent thinking, but, of course, I do them both all of the time in my work. We need greater focus on enhancing thinking ability. I hope we hear more from the authors on the topic.

  • Michael Todor

    That’s it: “convergent” and “divergent” thinking, rather than left brain vs. right. I like it!
    Living in the rurals of Western PA the past 20 years, I’ve noticed the locals (my tribe) abound with evidence of too much empasis on “convergent” thinking in their shools, churches, and everyday discourse. Climate Change (or to use the racy term Global Warming) is seen as a choice by what’s offered on the AM Radio talk shows, Creationism is an off-shoot of the reductionism of Biblical Proof Texting, and the inablibly for most to peel away the myriad layers of reality behind complex events and get a sense of the complexity of the world makes them prone to the silly assessments and propaganda schemes of Corpratism and Political expiedency. Ironically, it is their “Liberty” which they proclaim to love so much which is most at risk as as the outcome of this convergent focus.
    Good luck with the book, and I’m hoping it’s adopted as a text in Texas!

  • Stephen Malone

    A great collaboration from two brillant men.
    We as a country need to have an educational system that promotes and encourages divergent thinking. Our children are our future. Cuts backs in the arts and education are leading us as a country and as a people into a system where convergent teaching and thinking is a recipe for producing people who can not think outside the box. I believe that our current educational system is broken and an approach that uses “STEM” would be a way of once again bringing the American student back into the world of academic and holistic intelligence and excellence. Great job Tom & David

  • Jen

    18% of Portland, OR public schools have certified visual art instruction
    (compared to 83% nationally) and 58% have certified music instruction
    (compared to 94% nationally). (2011-12). Not surprisingly, especially after reading this article, we recently learned that “Education Week found that fourth-graders in every state made more progress in math than those in Oregon.” I’m looking forward to reading this book and then sharing it with my daughter’s teacher and principal.

  • Jack

    Our children are learning differently with the technology they are exposed to from a very early age. Integrate this with changes in teaching, incorporate companies and businesses. Like much change, it starts with an idea.

  • Vickie genz

    As an educator with many years experience, I can attest to the success of this innovation. We in the Northeast implemented it into our curriculum years ago. Congratulations, Tom! You’re on the right track. Vickie

  • jack

    But the Chamber and a.l.e.c bought a whole political party and they want their agenda pushed thru right now, before the public gets any stronger. Stir up hatred for govt. since they’re not in power, to take down democracy, replace it. in russia, when it’s economy collapsed, a few crooks, like romney ran in and took over’s an oligarch, fascist dictatorship with a few billionaires getting the whole pie.They need a very large pool of hungry workers like china,india, Newt already floated the get rid of child labor laws,right. now we know why the attacts on planned parenthood, contraceptives, welfare ,education gutted or privatized as gifts in tax cuts or pay to play contracts.

  • Sebastian Herald

    There is no question for me that sparking a creative spirit in a young child will result in broader thinking all around. The best scientists are dreamers. Whether a young mind goes on to play the piano professionally or not, the sheer pursuit opens a world of possibilities that the Western construct of teaching does not always allow. We all need to be grateful to these innovators for understanding that the arts should not be propelled only to those who show a natural propensity.

  • Unsustainability

    Governmentally we have created an education system today that defies being competitive with countries like Finland educationally. More than half the budgets of local school districts today are directed at “special ed” students because of federal mandates. Teachers must teach to the lowest common denominator of learning ability, and mainstreaming has placed ever-more kids whose diapers need changing and 1 in 4 who have limited understanding of our language into the classrooms.And then selective application of discipline is mandated, and politically-correct material is the only material given official sanction. Disciplined learning is necessary for STEM classes to succeed. Is it any wonder so few do now?

  • Richard Pelto

    What are the chances of success when most of our urban area schools are now composed of at least half being “special ed.” This reflects systemic changes over last 30 plus years. One requires schools to provide for “handicapped” students which includes an increasing number who need diapers changed, and can’t speak. The other involves fact that in most of these schools one in four students come from families with very limited English skills, and the parents of those (majority) from Mexico have less than an eighth grade education. Just imagine what a teacher is faced with in facing a classroom filled (because of “mainstreaming” policy) with many of these students and having to teach the lowest common denominator of ability when attempting to teach Shakespeare.