The idea of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) took off in educational policy in the early 2000s and with it a whole raft of brilliant initiatives to incorporate necessary 21st-century skills (such as experiential learning, problem-solving and collaboration) into school teaching.
Pretty soon the arts became seen as the less economically useful strand of learning and that anything that wasn’t focusing specifically on STEM subjects wasn’t worth investing time or money in.
But it soon became clear that STEM alone wasn’t enough. A 2018 NUT survey suggested that teachers believed that too narrow a focus on core subjects prevents creativity from flourishing.
A STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) approach takes the benefits of STEM, integrating them in and through the arts. Adopting the STEAM teaching approach allows students to integrate these principles with art and design too, breaking the all-too-often present idea that pupils are ‘arty’ or ‘science-y’ and preventing these labels, and the associated preferences and barriers, to set in.
Far from STEAM being simply science and maths with art tacked on, STEAM is an approach that uses them as access points for guiding dialogue, exploration and critical thinking.
The fact is that the four vital disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths are crucial in tackling the major challenges we face, from future-proofing transport infrastructure to feeding the world’s growing population.
However, says Karolina Hammer, IB maths teacher at the ACS International School, Cobham: “Traditional, didactic teaching methods, which explore individual subjects in isolation, are no longer appropriate or useful in today’s world.
Subjects such as science and maths cannot simply be taught in a standalone way if students are to develop the skills they will need to thrive at university and beyond.”
Real STEAM teaching should involve two or more of the elements taught and assessed in and through the other. Good STEAM teaching should also include good collaboration between teachers in different departments, the potential to adjust scheduling to accommodate new ways of teaching (such as open-ended lessons) and professional development in STEAM principles.
For example, Hammer’s class recently ran a space-themed LEGO robotics activity. Students built and programmed robots and then created science-fiction stories for their robotic creations to ‘act’ out.
Hammer says: “They then filmed the robot scene and created an iBook. This open-ended task developed students’ vital STEAM skills and encouraged them to apply their knowledge, innovation and imagination.”
Another example might be in Cobham’s lower school where students studying the respiratory system presented what they’d learnt by creating a film, using an app called Puppet Pals to explain the different anatomy and systems. This sort of exercise allows learners to look at existing subjects in new ways or flex different skills on existing knowledge.
Hammer says: “The students were able to use their knowledge in science and technology combined with creativity to create multimedia projects which explain an anatomical process in a new way.”
This year the school created a STEM team – a more formal version of the ‘club’ it has run in previous years. The new group undertakes calculations, programming, 3D printing and creates project portfolios. Hammer says: “Students also take part in inter-school challenges such as the FIRST LEGO League (an international competition organised by FIRST for elementary and middle school students).
“As part of this challenge, students have to work together to explore different STEM concepts and design a solution to a real-world problem. For this year’s challenge, the team built a model of an accessible playground which was wheelchair friendly.” Challenges like this, says Hammer, “are enormously beneficial as students get to explore their ideas in a competitive environment, which sharpens their focus and skills”.
Traditional, didactic teaching methods, which explore individual subjects in isolation, are no longer appropriate or useful in today’s world
Andy Lutwyche is a maths teacher at Roedean School where STEAM is incorporated across the curriculum, whether through ‘Baking Bad’ activities (using recipes to work out ratios, surface area, volume and equations for catering requirements) or using graphing software to draw pictures using lines and curves.
Lutwyche says: “We do a lot of activities that are a variation on just doing a long list of questions from a worksheet or book. These include ‘codebreakers’ where the answering of questions reveals the punchline to a joke, and the girls like providing jokes for inclusion in future codebreakers.”
Lutwyche also lets his students see the relevance of subjects to each other: “I get a lot of students asking about the relevance of mathematics for interior design, where there is a lot of crossover (measures, graphs, etc).”
Incorporating the skills across the curriculum, he says, “really helps towards breaking down barriers between mathematics and other subjects”. He says: “It makes maths less ‘taboo’ as a subject, highlighting that it affects our daily lives and makes it less abstract in the minds of the students, showing that it can be a bit of fun.”
In today’s climate, says Hammer, people must develop and apply transferable skills and be able to think across subject boundaries. And crucially, beyond their classroom walls: “My students are great with ideas and they are inspired by their surroundings, from developing disabled accessibility in the playground here at ACS, to designs for safe water delivery in the remote communities our students have fundraised for in Namibia.”
She adds: “This cross-curriculum approach nurtures logical thinking, problem-solving and persistence, encourages collaboration and communication, and provides the opportunity for students to develop practical, future-focused skills, in an imaginative, fun and creative way.”
This, she says, ultimately leads to a generation able to express new ideas and perspectives across subjects and bring innovative ideas to life.
Successfully incorporating STEAM into your teaching requires a conscious effort and dedication
Learning with purpose
Karen Steel is a junior schoolteacher at Hamilton College, where topics are routinely delivered as interdisciplinary learning. Steel says: “We don’t make it fit; it has to be purposeful.”
The junior school has Makerspace lessons where children work on a design/create topic which, says Steel, “may or may not link with the class learning”.
She adds: “The children learn to work together, compromise and create, problem-solve and make adaptations to their designs and creations.
“For example, when teaching about the change in transport over the ages, I teach how to ride a bike, examine the working parts and draw using charcoal.”
Head of maths at Hamilton Mark Shields says his department extensively uses the resource ‘TWIG’ – “Short, well-created videos that highlight the real-life context of mathematic concepts being taught.” This, he says, is used as a starter for many lessons across all age groups.
He says: “The department will always endeavour to link coursework to everyday life and work and we also highlight various STEAM-related competitions (such as Enterprising Mathematics, Ninja Maths and Young Mathematicians Awards) at which our students have gained much success.”
At Hamilton, a STEAM noticeboard is in place to allow the maths department to link its work to STEAM. This, says Shields, “is used to highlight any wider curricular activities and identifies the large range of careers in STEAM.”
In addition, STEAM ‘ambassador’ roles have been created to highlight the applications of mathematics in the workplace: “As this is pupil-led, it will hopefully help encourage more pupils to be aware of STEAM and take part.”
A curricular shift like this might seem onerous, and Rachel Hall, managing director of educational app Busy Things, says: “Successfully incorporating STEAM into your teaching requires a conscious effort and dedication, which means you always need to be thinking how you can creatively add these subjects into your lessons.”
However, it can be fun and incremental too, she says: “Look for activities which encourage the learning of more than one STEAM subject – it will be more fun and benefit pupils the most.
“For example, simply beginning classroom projects that you can all monitor each day can help to develop your students’ understanding of different subjects.”
Far from STEAM being another acronym that teachers have to remember or worry about, it’s a no-brainer approach to teaching applicable skills.
You might also like: Space travel should be STEAM-powered