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Getting beyond the buzzwords: Schools improvise as they add art to their STEM schools

At the start of the school year, eighth graders at Fulton & Alsbury Academy of Arts and Engineering cut amorphous shapes out of brightly colored pieces of construction paper. It was one of the first art projects of the year – a cutout in the style of French artist Henri Matisse.

"So basically we’re starting ... with the elements of art," said teacher Sally Furness. "And then we do a project based on that, and then we’ll start on the principles of design." 

Furness, who teaches language arts and social studies, is taking on visual art instruction for the first time this year. This school, which opened this year, is one of many that are navigating the transition from a program focused on science, technology, engineering and math – known popularly as STEM – to one that also incorporates art. 

“Not all people like just STEM. Some people are more into arts like I am,” said eighth grader Mystike Valdez. “You could combine arts with technology or arts with science.”

That’s pretty much the philosophy of STEAM education – to round out STEM’s focus on science and tech by fusing in arts and design to better prepare kids for innovative careers.

But while the STEM philosophy has passed into the mainstream over the past decade, STEAM is still a new enough idea that educators are finding themselves experimenting and making up exactly what it means for their schools and classes as they go along.

"I don’t like the word STEAM itself because I feel like it’s too much of a buzzword," said principal Andy Glatfelter. "And it begs the question, what exactly are you doing with art?"  

STEM resources for teachers and schools are now plentiful. But there are fewer guidelines on how to add art into the mix.

"There’s not one way to tackle it," said Kim Richards, who runs the San Diego-based education partnership STEAM Insight. "That can be exciting for some teachers but it’s also frustrating for those who don’t have the time and are really struggling day to day to integrate it in their own classrooms."

Just four years ago, "people would look at me when I said STEAM with the brows furrowed, what does it mean?" Richards said. "Like I was an alien almost."

But after a few years, the buzzword has caught on. As of 2013, there's even a STEAM caucus in Congress

"So it’s transitioned from the, 'what is this?'" Richards said. "To, 'OK, I get what this is in concept – now how do I do it?'" 

Some schools put an emphasis on doing a few intensive, cross-disciplinary projects each year. Others have design classes and arts integration lessons built into the daily schedule. Other schools have hooked onto the buzzword simply as a means of bringing an arts class back into the school day.

When Steve Venz came into his position as visual and performing arts coordinator for the Orange County Department of Education a couple years ago, school leaders began increasingly coming to him asking which method was best. 

"School districts were actually coming to ask me, 'How do I implement a STEAM school. Can you help me with this? How can we do this?'" Venz said. " I did the research, and there wasn’t a lot of information on the how."

Venz and Richards are now part of a collaborative of Southern California educators working to create a STEAM implementation guide. They hope to start piloting it to schools in the area by January.

To get a sense of best practices, they’ve visited a dozen STEAM schools in L.A., Orange and San Diego counties.

Should your school be on the map? Leave a note for us in the comment section.

At one of those schools, the Vista Innovation and Design Academy in San Diego County, principal Eric Chagala is hesitant to use the STEAM label.

“Educators find a cool, sexy term and they love to run with that,” Chagala said. “I think we set ourselves up for selling something that schools don’t really offer.”

For schools who really want to use STEAM, Chagala said, the first step is to make sure it’s more than just synonym for a well-rounded education that includes art.

“To be able to create a structure and system within the school where they’re able to integrate the different letters of whatever acronym that they’re doing. So it’s not standalone experiences.”

Three years into the school, Chagala says he and his staff are still coming up with new ways to do that.

And at Fulton & Alsbury, principal Glatfelter knows they have a lot to figure out.

Glatfelter previously ran a STEM school; now he’s in charge of figuring out what STEAM looks like for students day-to-day.

“I was a little intimated at first, I’ll admit that,” Glatfelter said. “And I didn’t know exactly where to go.”

There were a lot of questions about everything from teacher training, to the daily schedule, to curriculum. "So that we’re not just doing arts and crafts but we’re doing something that’s academic," he said.

Glatfelter reached out to some local museums, and The California Arts Project provided a crash course in visual art for all the teachers. The schedule is organized so that students go to one teacher for STEM subjects and to another for language arts, social studies and art. 

When that STEAM implementation guide is complete, his school will be part of the pilot group. For now, humanities teachers like Furness are still experimenting to figure out how the arts fit into the school's broader educational program. The students take a visual art course a few times a week, in addition to classes where they design wind turbines and learn about robotics. 

"We’re all just kind of making it up as we go," Furness said. "It’s fun, but it’d be nice to have a bit more direction."

In the future, Glatfelter hopes to add in photography and video editing, but the priority for this year is providing students with the fundamentals of art and then finding more ways to build on those principles and integrate them into other subjects.

“The best thing for us is to just move forward and we can course correct as we go,” said Glatfelter. “But I think the worst thing we can do is stand still because then art education doesn’t happen for our kids.”

Some available STEAM resources: