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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.