STEAM: a creative solution

Jo Golding finds out why STEAM learning is critical and the important role the arts play

With the detrimental impact of Covid-19 on the arts industry, it seems now more than ever we are realising the benefits and importance of the arts in our lives.

At HMC’s (Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) autumn conference, chair Sally-Anne Huang (who is also the high master of boys’ school St Paul’s), spoke of the irony of lockdown being a time where people were most coming to appreciate the arts, as the arts industries themselves were falling apart. “Try getting through those weeks without music, literature and film,” she said astutely.

The arts, and those who work within them, are in a vulnerable position, as shown by a study from Ulster University’s Economic Policy Centre in October.

The study revealed that 12,000–16,000 (more than one-third) of jobs in arts, culture and heritage in Northern Ireland are vulnerable as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. It’s not surprising considering how difficult social distancing makes live performances and how many people may not feel comfortable returning to venues for some time.

Despite the industry’s current struggles, it’s clear that schools are not giving up on delivering this vast subject area to students. In November, King Edward VI High School For Girls held a free arts event for schoolchildren across the UK to celebrate the positive impact the arts can have on young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

With online performances, workshops and resources, which were provided in partnership with the GSA (Girls’ Schools Association), the key message was that careers in the arts are “worthwhile, valuable and viable”.

Full STEAM ahead

Alongside teaching core creative subjects such as music and drama in school, another way educators can incorporate the arts into the curriculum is through adopting a STEAM approach.

STEAM uses science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue and critical thinking.

“Using STEAM education results in students who take thoughtful risks, engage in experiential learning, persist in problem-solving, embrace collaboration and work through the creative process. These are the innovators, educators, leaders, and learners of the 21st century!” an article on The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM’s website reads.

If it doesn’t sound all that easy to you then you’d be right, it’s not easy. Sometimes teachers will attend conferences or courses on the educational approach, and sometimes schools will dedicate a certain lesson or building to STEAM. These are great ways to get started, although the wonderful thing about STEAM is that it can be used in any lesson, by any teacher.

It has been much harder to teach STEAM since the pandemic, says Brighton Girls’ head of science


Integrating arts within STEM

Phil Marsh, head of science at Brighton Girls – an independent day school for girls aged three to 18 – says the arts are a valuable addition to STEM subjects.

“The arts have a real role to play in STEM learning. They are such a valuable addition as they stimulate the creative side of the brain and make you think more laterally about a problem as opposed to taking a more logical approach,” Marsh said.

It has become clear from research that studying the arts can have an impact on academic achievement, including numeracy and literacy skills. This is why the blended nature of the STEAM approach makes so much sense.

Jason Whiskerd, headmaster at Brentwood Preparatory School – a coeducational school for three- to 11-year-olds in Essex – says a variety of skills are needed to overcome the world’s problems, not just those learned in maths and science.

“We live in a connected world which is multi-disciplined with a variety of skills being deployed to overcome problems, some of which can be done quite easily and other problems that take longer to resolve and with a wider team of people involved,” says Whiskerd.

“Some problems need a creative solution and this is often where the arts come into focus. It is no coincidence that huge tech companies such as Google and Tesla employ a large number of people who do not have a background in technology. It is all about the makeup of a team, and the skills acquired through the arts often play an important part within any major STEM project.”

When Elon Musk was recruiting for Tesla’s artificial intelligence team in February 2020, he made it clear that a college degree was not required, rather a “deep understanding” of artificial intelligence. This language matches perfectly with the STEAM approach, which encourages students to find information and ideas to increase their understanding of a topic and create questions of their own, strengthening their independence.

The arts stimulate the creative side of the brain and make you think more laterally, says Phil Marsh from Brighton Girls


The impact of Covid-19 on STEAM

The pandemic has changed the way schools deliver education and has meant increased difficulty carrying out the usual STEAM activities. In many cases, after-school clubs have come to a complete halt.

Marsh explains: “We have, without doubt, had a much more difficult time teaching STEAM since the pandemic hit. Our engineering club after school had to stop which was a real shame as pupils were challenging themselves to build a soap box car, and lunchtime clubs had to be put on hold too, as we can’t mix year group bubbles and must maintain social distancing.”

Ironically, schools have had to use their own problem-solving skills to keep STEAM activities going during the pandemic.

It is no coincidence that huge tech companies such as Google and Tesla employ a large number of people who do not have a background in technology – Jason Whiskerd, headmaster, Brentwood Preparatory School

Whiskerd explains: “One of the central pillars of STEAM is finding solutions to problems, and it is fair to say that Covid-19 has highlighted the need for us to problem-solve like never before.

“We have made every effort to maintain our STEAM curriculum, but sometimes using resources and in outdoor and indoor spaces that we would not have considered pre-Covid. During the lockdown, we also asked pupils to problem-solve at home using STEAM skills, with some amazing outcomes and solutions being shared via Zoom.”

Independent schools have been incredibly creative with their facilities, resources and timetabling in order to keep the activities that will really benefit children going.

Brentwood Preparatory School’s new Futures Room for STEAM learning opened at the end of 2020


Hope for the future

Looking to the future, Brentwood Preparatory School have invested millions of pounds in a transformation of its facilities, which after two years is now complete.

There are a number of new buildings and refurbished existing buildings, but one of the main new features is the Futures Room. The school said the room is a “place for experimentation” in areas like IT, design, maths and science.

Whiskerd says: “Our new building has been designed to allow greater fluidity and interaction between the subjects that make up the STEAM acronym, with our new Futures Room being central to the testing of theories that pupils may well have learned in other subjects.”

A special lighting rig gives the school different options in terms of technology, backdrops and lights, and there is a built-in green screen. The school said it will allow STEAM teachers to engage pupils in more “cross-curricular opportunities”.

Brentwood Preparatory School isn’t the only independent school that has invested in STEAM-focused facilities in recent years.

Talbot Heath’s STEAM Hub has been up and running since September 2019, but at no small cost – construction took 15 months and it cost £7.6m. However, the result is massively impressive, with a large auditorium that can be transformed into a lecture theatre, virtual reality space, performance area and more.

Angharad Holloway, head of Talbot Heath, says using the building for interactive lessons has given pupils a “depth of understanding” and “insight” that they would never have had previously. She mentions how it has enhanced pupils’ learning and their ability to “think on their feet, problem-solve and be adaptable”.

Considering the direction that the pandemic is going, hopefully it won’t be too long until after-school and lunchtime clubs can be picked up again. It’s clear that pupils in independent schools are reaping the benefits of the STEAM approach, enabling them to become more independent, critical thinkers that are adaptable – and in the current climate, that’s exactly what we need.

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