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Arguably one of the biggest movements in education over the last decade is what is more commonly referred to as STEM education. It seems that everywhere you turn these days: granting organization initiatives to political platforms, White House campaigns and for-profit and non-profit programs are all talking about the importance of STEM education. How does this movement relate to the media arts and does it reflect the current needs of students in K-12 education? What happens when you add the letter “A” to STEM? It’s about more than simply creating the word STEAM.

What is STEM education?
STEM education refers to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. It is an educational initiative that is supported at both the national and state levels, from governments to foundations and scholars alike.

Many assessments of K-12 students over the last several years have indicated that the United States is falling significantly behind other countries when it comes to student performance, and interest in, STEM subject areas. The argument for STEM education is that if the United States continues to lag behind other countries in educating its students in what are deemed necessary 21st century workforce skills in science, technology and most importantly innovation, then the consequences for the economic and political power of the United States may be dire.

Who supports STEM?
It would seem that nearly everyone in the United States supports the STEM movement. Most recently, President Obama launched the Educate to Innovate initiative to support STEM education in K-12 schools. This initiative also includes partnerships and collaborations with for-profit companies, non-profit organizations, foundations and schools. STEM education is also endorsed by a growing list of academic and science and research-based organizations throughout the country. One of the most complete lists of organizations who endorse STEM education can be found through the STEM Education Coalition’s website. Perhaps most importantly, STEM is increasingly being touted in political candidates’ education platforms for the upcoming election year.

How is STEM related to the media arts?
Nationally, two organizations specifically, have launched STEM education initiatives that coincide with President Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign, both of which incorporate the media arts.

The first is Time Warner Cable’s Connect a Million Minds initiative, which is “a five-year $100 million dollar philanthropic initiative designed to increase students’ awareness and skills in STEM-related fields specifically through the exploration of different media forms.”  Recently, Time Warner has launched the first of a series of programs they refer to as “Crack the Codes” as a part of their overall Connect a Million Minds initiative. Launched in late March of this year, the first program was entitled “Cracking the Codes in the Digital World” and was designed to show K-12 students the science behind broadcast technology through on-site visits and meetings with Time Warner staff.The second organization that has also been visibly involved in relating STEM initiatives to the media arts is Discovery Communications. Perhaps their most visible contribution to the field thus far, and overall neat show to watch if you’re a film guru (or even if you aren’t) is their weekly Science of the Movies television show on the Science Channel. The hour-long show examines the science of filmmaking through the exploration of a variety of topics including stop-motion animation, sound design and Foley techniques, and computer-generated imaging to name a few.

Although both of these initiatives are crucial to a child’s involvement, and knowledge of, STEM education especially as it relates to the media arts, they may be the exception rather than the norm in the grander scheme that is STEM education in the United States. One of the most important goals of STEM education is innovation, yet in many instances STEM initiatives seem to place little to no emphasis on the arts. What is innovation without the creative drive and spirit fostered only by the study and inclusion of the arts in learning? Meet the STEAM movement.

The STEAM movement is the latest “A”ddition to the STEM movement. What is the “A” in STEAM, you ask? The arts, of course! Many educators and researchers, most notably in the arts field, have begun pushing for more STEAM initiatives in K-12 education. One of the biggest talking points? Recent and continuing studies that show the positive impacts of arts education on other subject areas, such as the many positive effects of music learning on math test scores and comprehension.

Where do the media arts fit in to the STEM movement?
Well, it’s complicated. The media arts fit seamlessly into the STEAM movement and less so with the STEM movement. However, I do see a possible cause-and-effect relationship between the need for educational initiatives such as the STEM movement with a child’s increasing media consumption.

Although research to support this claim may be hard to substantiate, if in fact it is at all possible: isn’t it interesting to note that research examining declining student literacies in STEM fields such as science and mathematics in many ways corresponds with an increase in the rate of youth digital media consumption and the strict standardized-testing environment created by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002.

I am not suggesting that all media consumption makes children less apt to be interested in more traditional academic subjects. However, I do wonder if there is a strong correlation between passive media consumption and the decline in traditional-subject standardized test scores and perhaps an overall decrease in traditional-subject based careers in science, mathematics and engineering. I see two reasons for this possible correlation.

First, a child’s passive media consumption has so drastically increased without any counter-educational effect that we now have an entire generation of students who are so “mentally checked out” and overwhelmed by all the media sources they consume that they simply don’t care about much, unless it includes something they have seen on TV. For example, what does one expect to hear when they ask a child what they want to be when they grow up? How many “engineers, bio-chemists and statisticians” do you hear? What about “professional athlete, rock star, movie star”? When all children see in the media is three or four professions and/or skills continuously glamorized, more traditional-subjects become far less relevant to their future aspirations.

In short, if we aren’t relating any part of everyday classroom instruction to some part of the other 7 ½ to 8 hours children spend daily with the media, then we aren’t keeping pace with their reality; their perceptions of what “really matters” in their world. This goes hand in hand with the effects of NCLB on arts learning in the classroom.

It goes something like this: children aren’t exposed to many (or any) arts education in schools because of the increasing focus on more traditional subject areas in an effort to increase mandated test scores due to NCLB, children have increased their media intake, media is used in the classroom in many instances in a passive way which lends no additional educational merit, children connect with the world around them and develop their own self-image based on what they see in the media – when these images and viewpoints are not challenged in the classroom and when children are not asked to be creative and thoughtful about the images they see everyday they ultimately tune out. Everyone succumbs to selective perception, and children are no different.

What matters when you are a teenager are the images you see in the media, not math and science all day, everyday in the classroom. When there is so much emphasis on traditional subjects in classrooms because they are the only areas tested on standardized tests, and little to no emphasis on what “really matters” to teenagers they simply tune out. This is, largely, where we are at now.

The STEM movement has become so important because we have a generation of uninterested, bored students who have grown up being forced to learn traditional subjects, that although they remain crucial to building an advanced society, are not the end all in education today. As a result, these children have simply checked out of education altogether because they don’t see the relevance between what they are learning in the classroom and what they are witnessing in the media.  

What needs to be done?
Can adding the arts to the STEM movement help bring them back? Yes. Why? Because the arts, especially the media arts, can make a child’s classroom education more relevant to what is going on in their lives outside of the classroom. This doesn’t mean simply using the arts to engage otherwise disengaged students, it means using the arts, specifically the media arts, to make lesson plans more culturally relevant to children. How? Build upon what organizations such as Time Warner Cable and Discovery Communications are already doing. Keep examining the science behind the media arts, but add a creative and innovate component that requires students to use their knowledge of the science behind digital media to examine real-world issues and solutions. Force students to expand on the media knowledge they already inherently have.

As an example, challenge students to create two video projects in correlation with the completion of a unit or lesson plan and ask them to identify and mimic two video styles they see everyday in the media. Then, question them on the similarities and differences between each style and its subsequent effects on the communicated message of the piece. If prompted, children will be able to distinguish the unpolished shooting style of a reality series with that of a scripted sitcom.   

In addition to this over-arching goal, consider the following specific steps in your community:

Celebrate the relationship between the arts and technology
As media artists and practitioners, this is especially important and relevant for us. Here in Pittsburgh, we are lucky enough to have several different venues and organizations that continually celebrate the intersection of arts and technology. This includes exhibitions that highlight arts and artists that work in the intersection of art and technology, most recently at the upcoming Three Rivers Arts Festival.

There is the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which among many other initiatives, has an Art + Technology Initiative which is also host to the annual DATA (Design, Art and Technology Awards) and exhibition. We also have foundations such as The Grable Foundation and The Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation who are willing to support schools and organizations looking to explore the intersection of art and technology with their recent STEAM Education Grant for local school districts.

These are just a few of the many possibilities for exploring the intersection and interrelationship between the arts and technology; an intersection that is second nature to the media arts. Push those in your community to explore this intersection, with and beyond the media arts.

Examine candidates’ educational platforms
I didn’t realize the true importance of this step until I recently was assigned to research the Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates’ educational platforms for my internship. Upon completing initial research, and after reviewing several additional web resources, it appears as though the STEM movement is well-entrenched in the political sphere with little to no mention of the STEAM movement. Although most candidates and current politicians champion STEM education, few if any reference the importance of the STEAM movement in education.

What is interesting to note is that most of these same politicians who specifically reference STEM in their educational platforms also place significant importance on innovation in education with little to no mention of how the arts may improve innovative and creative thinking in the K-12 classroom. If we don’t ask that politicians start addressing the STEAM movement now, the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act on arts education may continue to be felt for yet another generation of students.

Advocate for the media arts and STEAM education
Although the STEM movement does not inherently focus on the arts as a primary pillar to 21st century learning, its inclusion of Technology as a pillar to learning is still an important step towards the complete integration of media arts in K-12 education.

More important, however, is the up-and-coming STEAM movement. Though the movement has yet to gain significant national and state coverage, it is being discussed in arts education circles everywhere. If the movement picks up as much, err steam, as the STEM movement has, the media arts have the very real potential of being acknowledged in K-12 education circles as a viable means of arts and technology education and inclusion in schools. In fact, though the media arts are certainly not the only art form at this important intersection, they are possibly the most visible and relevant. A key to advocating for the inclusion of the media arts in the STEAM movement should be an emphasis on the abundance of research indicating high levels of media consumption in today’s adolescence. If these numbers aren’t educationally and socially relevant in the 21st century, I’m not sure what is.

Both the STEM and STEAM movements are relevant to the current needs of students in K-12 education, and more importantly, to the educational needs of the United States both now and in the future. Where STEM comes close to addressing the future and current needs of students and the country as a whole, STEAM addresses not only current and future needs in education but also the root cause of how students got to this point of apathy in the first place.

At its very core, the STEAM movement is about integrated learning and most effectively preparing students for the 21st century challenges we as a society, and they as individuals will face. If we ignore teaching students how to critically and creatively think, innovate and communicate using the tools provided to them, we do not fully prepare them for the future. Successfully teaching these needed skills can come only from exploring the intersection between arts and technology, of which the media arts are an integral component; “A”mazing what the “A”ddition of one letter can do.  

Amy Puffenberger is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts Management program  at Carnegie Mellon University.  She also received her undergraduate degree in film and video production from Grand Valley State University. Her primary interests are in non-profit film and media arts and literacy education.