NSTA Reports—Debra Shapirostudent doing art: NASA Stennis Space Center

Teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) are discovering that by adding an “A”—the arts—to STEM, learning will pick up STEAM. “Students remember science learning situations that contain multi-sensory, hands-on activities or experiments,” which the arts can bring to science lessons, says Dawn Renee Wilcox, science coordinator for the Spotsylvania County School District in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “The arts are also useful for helping students make transitions and connections between science content or concepts through thought and expression.”

“Allowing students to use artistic methods to show their understanding of a concept, event, or object will elicit a wider range of student responses and participation,” says Inez Liftig, eighth-grade science teacher at Fairfield Woods Middle School in Fairfield, Connecticut, and field editor for NSTA’s middle level journal, Science Scope. “To understand the nature and role of science, it is important to compare and contrast it to other areas of study to see similarities and overlaps and differences. Looking at the history and development of all subject areas shows how knowledge, STEM, and the arts are all part of society and reflect the society of different periods in history,” she explains.

Liftig believes combining science and the arts “also lets students see how both of these have been and still are quests to examine and explain the world around us…Students see that curiosity, creativity, imagination, and attention to detail are traits common to artists/writers and scientists.”

“The passions for science, mathematics, engineering, and art are driven by the same desire: the desire to discover the beauty in one’s world,” notes Virginia Malone, a retired senior science project director in Hondo, Texas. “Art is also integrated into technologies as engineers go from crude designs to finished products…From model T Ford to the latest concept car, we see the evolution of technology is as much about aesthetics of the product as its functionality.”

Andrew and Sarah Petto point out “many of the fundamental concepts in both curricula have common elements: optics, color, perspective, structure/function relationships, patterning, and sequencing.” He is a senior lecturer in anatomy and physiology at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Milwaukee; she is artist-in-residence at the UW Hospitals and Clinics and senior artist in the Center for Integrative Medicine, Department of Family Medicine, at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. They believe having students create “an artistic representation of their ideas and solutions is a valuable way to make learning personal.”

It also can help students who have previously had difficulty in STEM courses, says Maureen Sullivan, science, art, and literacy coach for the San Francisco, California, Unified School District. The arts can give these students “a pathway for success,” she explains.

National standards support combining science and the arts, notes Debby Chessin, associate professor of elementary education at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi. “In K–4, the National Science Education Standards state that students should appreciate the wonder of the natural world and understand the relationships between form and function. According to the National Standards in Art Education, students should integrate form and function in making connections to other content areas in representing art and design principles.” Both scientists and visual artists rely on common process skills: “drawing on curiosity, asking questions, observing, seeing patterns, and constructing meaning,” she adds.

Integration also benefits teachers. “Having students express their understanding of science in multiple ways gives the teachers insight into what students understand and don’t understand about science,” says Donna Sterling, professor of science education at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia.

“I think that it is important to integrate everything into STEM lessons,” says Donna Barton of Cedar Hills Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida. “By integrating other curriculum content areas, students not only are able to see how science is important to aspects of everyday life, but it also allows them the opportunity for real-world application of science and math knowledge.”

“Successful integration means that the curricular goals of all participating disciplines are met in the integrated lessons,” stress the Pettos. “The art is not merely illustrative or decorative, but represents an essential part of the process of inquiry: problem finding, problem solving, and communication.”

In addition, “arts education has a long tradition of critical analysis that is very similar to scientific peer review,” they note. “Each individual presents an outcome to peers, who then respond with questions, suggestions, and extensions of that work.” It’s important, they say, to give students opportunities “to reflect on both the process and the outcome: allowing students to consider how well the outcome solved the analytical problems for them and especially, what they might do differently.”


Megan Simmons, education program manager for the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), a nonprofit research institute in Half Moon Bay, California, recently led a workshop at a California Science Teachers Association conference called From STEM to STEAM: Incorporating the Arts Into Science Learning. The workshop demonstrated how teachers are integrating STEM and the arts into sustainability projects using open education resources (OER), learning materials freely available for use, remixing, and redistribution, such as those on ISKME’s OER Commons website. OER Commons has a STEAM section at www.oercommons.org/browse/tag/STEAM, where teachers can search, tag, rate, and review more than 30 resources, as well as share additional ones. A related wiki is available at http://wiki.oercommons.org/mediawiki/index.php/STEAM. ISKME holds professional development workshops on this topic as well, notes Simmons.

Simmons and Amee Godwin, ISKME’s director of strategic initiatives, cite ISKME’s Sun Curve Design Challenge (http://wiki.oercommons.org/mediawiki/index.php/Sun_Curve_Challenge) as an example of incorporating design and creativity into science learning. Sun Curve, created by San Francisco’s INKA Biospheric Systems and inventor-sculptor Paul Giacomantonio, consists of a vertical hydroponic garden attached to a fishpond, along with a sculpture—“sculpture as a scientific laboratory,” explains Godwin. It serves as inspiration for student teams participating in the challenge, which asks them to design a working model for an affordable and renewable way to grow food. Simmons says students are “finding inspiration from nature” and incorporating green design and technology as they work to create a “beautiful, but functional” solution. They will share their ideas via videos, slideshows, sketches, and other artistic channels.

Other ways to combine science and the arts abound, says Simmons. Students can draw or act out a tree’s life cycle. They can write a poem or play about a scientific process, such as decomposition of leaves.

Studying famous naturalists such as Darwin “shows how important their drawings and detailed field journals have been to the preservation and advancement of scientific thought,” notes Liftig.

Wilcox challenged her students “to design and build a vehicle that could travel down a ramp in a straight line for at least 100 cm.” Her students created drawings of and wrote about their designs and presented their final products to their classmates in “commercials complete with advertising drama and student-created jingles.”

Sullivan recalls a Museums as Classrooms project in which San Francisco’s de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences presented art/science lessons. For example, “students were able to analyze light in two contexts,” how it is used in an aquarium at the academy and how it helps preserve paintings at the art museum. She says she has drawn the chambers of the heart on her school’s blacktop and had students dance the movement of blood and air through the body.

“While studying sound,” says Sterling, students “can apply its principles to musical instruments.” They can “compose a song that is scientifically accurate to show their understanding of science concepts, such as the relationships of the different bodies in a solar system or what is inside an atom. Drama skills can be used as students role play the similarities and differences between solid, liquid, and gas particles.”

To those teachers who hesitate to incorporate the arts because they are not good artists themselves, Simmons says, “Don’t be intimidated. You don’t have to be a professional artist; you just need to inspire students to learn a different way.”