STEAM in Action: The transdisciplinary approach
Updated: Jun 14
Consider some of these:-
How does nature observation and origami-folding help develop something useful for humans, such as in the fields of medicine or construction?
Could just one app shift people’s consciousness to actively support zero waste, recycling, or energy reduction for climate change?
Have you wondered how we could promote the ethical use of AI across all nations?
Have you wondered who should have priority of life in a driverless car in the event of an accident - the pedestrians or the passengers?
If a prison sentence were decided by AI should we have a right to know how?
Who safeguards the use of our information? Who safeguards the authenticity, completeness and accuracy of news reported? Who should decide on the algorithms? What kinds of skills are required for informed decision-making?
These questions among many, are the types of questions, we all ought to be asking. Yet, how many educational approaches today prepare our students for deep questioning and solution-focused thinking and doing? Such an approach requires more real-life connections to the world we operate in. It requires an understanding of our humanity and the ways in which we create meaning. STEAM is one such approach.
My interest in STEAM must have been sourced in my formative years. In my first year at university I recall being asked why I had chosen unusual subject combinations - Musicology as my major, Electronic Music, Data Processing and Programming, and Architecture as minor electives. Later when studying to become a teacher, it was only natural to choose Computing and Music as my two teaching subjects and developing the former to Masters level to construct algorithms and investigate generative data visualisation techniques.
Whilst others around me questioned the "unusual" combinations, I felt my choices were natural to me - I saw and felt the parallels in both subjects, that of symbols, codes and patterns as expressions of ourselves or phenomena that could develop into something useful or beautiful. I also realised very quickly that the acts of creation, whether the focus was on musical composition, arrangement or writing biologically inspired algorithms, fell into process-driven patterns that were dependent on certain parameters or the decisions being made. I found that the most interesting outcomes were a product of this creative process.
I liken this to the metaphor often used in photography whereby "taking" a photograph is about "creating" the image as there are so many parameters and decisions that need to be taken into consideration when creating the image, technical and artistic. Likewise designing algorithms to perform any task requires both critical and creative thought and the possibilities are only limited to our understanding, experiences and imaginations.
During the past 25 years, I have examined parallels in both Science and Art disciplines and have been nurturing process-driven approaches in my teaching. As a Computing and Music specialist, I therefore embrace the STEM paradigm shift to STEAM and know how important it is for educators not to ignore the value of the Arts in STEM curriculum.
WHAT IS STEAM?
“STEAM is an educational approach to learning that uses Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking. The end results are 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!” Susan Riley, https://educationcloset.com/steam/what-is-steam/
THE HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
A quick look at the historical perspective helps to place STEAM learning into context.
Under the tutelage of the Greek philosophers, students learned rhetoric (the art of speaking and writing), music (dancing, singing and playing instruments), theatre, ethics, mathematics and astronomy. There was a close connection between mathematics and music.
"From what has been said, it is clear what influence music has on the disposition of the mind, and how it can fascinate it - and if it can do so, it is undeniable that young people must be educated." - Aristotle
For Leonardo Da Vinci, the arts and the sciences coexisted naturally.
"Science makes a better artist, art makes a better scientist." Leonardo Da Vinci
Furthermore, by studying the writings, journals and outputs of these inventors we learn that their interdisiciplinary nature of learning helped their thinking to develop exponentially rather than incrementally. Perhaps neglected in traditional educational systems, is putting the thinking into action.
"I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do." - Leonardo da Vinci
Similarily, if we look at the work of JS Bach or MC Escher, the relationships between mathematics and art are strongly intertwined. But that is discussion for another article. We can, however, surmise that both disciplines share many more similarities in terms of process-driven discovery than not, and are in fact complementary.
THE ARTS IN STEAM
The recent contribution of the Arts to STEM, around ten years ago, was an important one. The Arts, which incorporates the humanities, have the power to humanise and bring meaning to our lives. They allow us to explore who we are and learn about our roles in life. They allow us to engage in dialogue, search for solutions to open-ended problems, to develop process-driven approaches. STEAM allows individuals to apply these arts principles, practices, and processes to their learning. STEAM professionals necessarily must explore the complex and the abstract - ideas of inclusion, morals, rights, values and meaning. Our educational system needs to immerse students in discussion of ethics and responsibility especially in the ever-changing world of science and technology. STEAM’s interdisciplinary learning lends itself to this. The Arts disciplines exist in their own right, but they too can be used as levers to the inevitably exponential but wise and controlled growth of a STEAM-fortified curriculum.
HOW TO STEAM?
Borrowing from both scientific investigation and process-driven arts exploration, pupils learn to analyse, create, reflect and improve. They learn to document their learning journeys and allow ideas to unfold and grow. They learn to work in teams with others who hold complementary strengths. They seek feedback from experts. Projects are not outcome-driven. It is the means to the end which is important; the creative approach which leads to discovery and brings meaning to the individual. Teachers teach core skills, but they also give opportunities for pupils to think about unsolved deep questions and give them time to explore possible solutions. Portfolios of work show the depth of skill developed. They teach collaboration and involve pupils at social-emotional levels to a greater extent than standardised tests do.
One of the major challenges for schools today, is to learn how to STEAM; how to integrate discrete subject areas into other fields without compromising depth. Can a subject be true to itself, if it is integrated into other domains? How could discrete subjects possibly contribute to a cohesive curriculum?
Consider the STEAM thinking shifts that are or should be occurring today:-
a) At governmental levels
Create alignment between schools, universities and STEAM career pathways e.g. how is education preparing for cyber analysts, engineering and law, AI engineering, biomedical engineering, 3D engineering, space travel engineering, alternative energy engineering, rubbish engineering, data and information engineering to name a few
Reward discovery over mastery of known information
Reward innovation and creativity
b) At the organisational level
Adopt STEAM practice and principles - become solution and growth mindset focused
Create flatter structures of interdisciplinary teams
Adjust timetabling to accommodate interdisciplinary team teaching and learning
Allocate time for professional development in STEAM principles and practice
Allocate time for collaborative planning
Develop process-driven portfolio assessment structures
Encourage formative assessment (self, teacher/student, peer or wider community)
c) As teachers
Enhance own professional development in STEAM principles and practice
Experience the fulfilling energy of creating and co-creating with colleagues
Make new personal and academic pathways into interrelated fields
Craft lessons with deeper and more meaningful learning; experiences that change the lives of students
Develop in students deep enquiry, intellectual collaboration, personal strengths, service-oriented learning, purposeful tasks, co-creative processes
Provide opportunities for students to know and learn the facts but also to be innovative and creative
Create assessments that follow STEAM principles and practice guidelines
Think TEAMS not GROUPS (groupwork is common; teamwork is rare)
Make reflection a part of every lesson
d ) As pupils
Develop sound social and emotional communication skills, in person and online
Think but also create
Value knowledge but also discovery
Keep a journal of discovery learning, document the process
Develop a process-driven mindset
Develop interdisciplinary knowledge and skills
Develop mental elasticity and complex problem solving skills
Develop critical thinking skills
Have discussions with schools, universities and ministers
Encourage children to find their strengths, in fields that interest them
Encourage children to create portfolios of their learning that they are proud to take with them when they leave school
Encourage children to collaborate with others
To summarise, STEAM is really about humanity, it's really about helping people by using interdisciplinary or STEAM kind of thinking and doing. To be able to actually come up with a solution to an idea and then see it in your hands and be able to press a button and for it to be in millions of people's hands is empowering. We're the first generation in the world to have that kind of experience. Thus as STEAM pedagogical approaches help to shift passive learners into active ones, let’s be prepared for it, let’s be proactive and not reactive. Let us all exercise our responsibilities to shape the environments and societies we want to live in. Let's be mindful and find the meaningful ways in which we want to live and make a better world for all.