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On Wednesday, June 17, Future Tense—a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University—will host an evening event in Washington, D.C., on designing the 21stcentury. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

Imagine a high school dance class in session. You might envision an open studio, pupils all in a row, lined up to practice their pliés and jetés at the command of their instructor. Not so much at Boston Arts Academy, where art is “central to learning.” For one class project, a BAA dance student prototypes her own “electroluminescent costume,” which uses electrical currents to light up the fabric. She creates the costume from sketch to reality, complete with working circuits, and all with the help of the school’s modeling software and a 3-D printer.

That’s STEAM in action. “STEAM” takes the standard STEM formulation (science, technology, engineering, and math) and adds an A for arts. And, well, it seems to be gaining steam. In May alone, 27 school districts and programs in Pennsylvania were awarded $530,000 specifically for the development of STEAM programs and facilities, and VH1’s Save the Music Foundation held a high-profile event to promote STEAM.

As STEAM has become increasingly prominent, some have argued that the general addition of an “arts” component distracts from the focus on the hard sciences. Lloyd M. Bentsen IV, a researcher with National Center for Policy Analysis, says STEM already suffers from a major problem with student engagement, and the focus on changing STEM to STEAM would distract from the issue.

Others argue that there needs to be separation between the arts and sciences to prevent anything taking away from the focus on STEM education. This perspective is fueled in part by the fear that the United States is falling behind in the STEM fields—government and private money is being poured into grants, scholarships, and job placement programs specifically tailored to STEM engagement and placing students in STEM careers in the U.S. (Some recent reports suggest that the ratio of STEM grads to STEM jobs is actually not a huge problem—there are other issues at play.)

But the STEAM movement isn’t about spending 20 percent less time on science, technology, engineering, and math to make room for art. It’s about sparking students’ imagination and helping students innovate through hands-on STEM projects. And perhaps most importantly, it’s about applying creative thinking and design skills to these STEM projects so that students can imagine a variety of ways to use STEM skills into adulthood.

As an A student with a love of drawing and crafting, I spent my K–12 years being told art was a nice hobby. Art skills had nothing to do with science or math success, and engineering was something you went into only if you did well in math and science first. Succeeding in STEM subjects, which weren’t called STEM at that point, seemed more important. When I was in high school in D.C., there was never much choice between taking studio art and calculus—if you were clever, you took the latter, knowing that anything with art in the title was sure to be useless to your career and college aspirations. “Design” was never an offered subject, much less a subtopic for discussion, and I never considered it as a career path, because I had no idea it was a career path.

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