in STEAM

Art vs. STEM: How Teachers and Parents Put the A into STEAM

Some parents, educators, and professionals believe that STEM and the arts operate in silos separate from each other. Artistically gifted people create beautiful pieces that inspire while logical people stick to numbers and formulas.

There is a belief that you are either left-brained or right-brained.

Thoughtful or logical.

Math or reading-oriented.

But it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Pitting the two against each other just further isolates students who feel pressured to choose a side. Art and STEM need each other to succeed, which is why art makes up the A in STEAM.

Art is An Essential Part of STEM

In the same way that STEM encompasses everything from making video games to counting scallop populations from space, art isn’t limited to one particular course or medium.

In an article for the National AfterSchool Association, Andy the Science Wiz writes that art encompases a variety of fields. When teachers refer to art in STEAM, they’re referring to language, physical art, fine art, music, and design. Andy presents questions that almost have to be answered through art:

  • How can a new design be presented?
  • What is the best way to communicate a finding or discovery?
  • How can a prototype be built?

One project that many STEM teachers use is asking students to redesign a common object to make it easier to use. While this seems like an engineering project, the design and development process requires creativity and art to build something new.

In fact, there’s a whole movement dedicated to having more educators embrace the art in STEAM. The organization STEM to STEAM, championed by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), connects the dots between art and STEM through a variety of case studies, events, and projects. The organization is geared toward teachers who are hoping to teach STEM subjects in a way that engages all students, to prove that you can’t innovate and find creative solutions without tapping into your imaginative and artistic sides.

Students use art and creativity in STEM; they just don’t always realize it.

Art Makes STEM Less Intimidating

Many of the STEM projects and activities that educators create and parents try are meant to make science and math seem less terrifying to students. At Ozobot, we introduce programming in a way that is fun and exciting for kids, with robots and Color Codes. Art can attract students, helping them realize they can succeed in STEM and don’t have to fear those subjects.

Writer and designer Melanie Pinola recently shared her experiences running a Girl Scout troop. She talked to them and her own daughter about STEAM subjects. While the girls had impressive math scores and were interested in the science projects and programming games presented to them, most said they had little to no interest in anything related to math or tech. Pinola was shocked at how polarizing the subject itself could be, where students thought math skills were simply something you had or didn’t havelike being born with blue eyes or the ability to roll your tongue.

This isn’t unique. Many parents worry that perceived biases in math will hold their children back. Even modern STEM professionals admit that they overcame personal doubts when entering the field.

“As a kid, none of the ‘future engineer’ stereotypes applied to me,” engineer Molly Nicholas writes at Qualcomm. She had no interest in assembling robots or following instructions in a science project. “What was lost on me for a long time was the idea that creativity and engineering are connected…Looking back, it’s obvious that solving puzzles—finding creative ways to answer open-ended questions—is a lot of what programming is.”

By presenting STEM classes in an artistic way instead of emphasizing the concept of programming and gadgets, educators are better able to interest students.

10 Ways Educators Are Combining Art and STEM

The best way to explain the relationship between Art and STEM is to see it in action. When teachers develop ways to connect STEM subjects to other areas, students are able to think creatively and learn about different topics.  

Using Pop Culture to Engage Students in STEM

A lot of pop culture today comes in the form of artistic expression, which provides opportunities for parents to connect with kids about STEM and creative forms.

Xavier Harding was one of the first journalists to break the news in Popular Science that Marvel was designing a series of covers related to each theme of STEAM in November 2016. The comic book creators said they wanted to encourage fans to follow their passions and pursue their dreams by depicting some of their favorite characters doing just that. A few of the comic book covers include:

  • Moon Girl representing science
  • Spider-Man showcasing technology
  • Iron Man representing engineering

Not only did Marvel validate art’s place in the STEAM acronym, it also showed students how they can explore their favorite subjects with a creative design form.    

Discussing Ethics in Nature Through Biology and Engineering

Students of every age and level can discover and rediscover the connection between STEM and art. Artist Peter Krsko recently closed his Zoethica exhibit as part of his Spring 2017 Interdisciplinary Art Residency Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout his time at the university, he challenged undergraduate students to explore the “technology” of nature and the ethics of our impact on it.

This class taught bioengineering students to step back and explore the beauty and wonder of the world, not just the formulas and lessons taught in textbooks.

“Some kids don’t have the same opportunities to access science, and I focus on that,” Krsko said. “There is so much talent hidden in places that have never had the chance to shine.”  

Explaining Weather Events Through the Creative Process

Lynn Marentette, a learning experience designer at NUITEQ, created a guide for parents and educators who wish to add some art to their lesson plans. One example she provides is making weather lessons more engaging when studying natural sciences. A few examples teachers can follow include:

  • Studying how weather and storms are depicted in art, music, and film (like dark clouds used as foreshadowing).
  • Creating models of weather systems and how they form with clay, posters, paint, and recycled materials.
  • Developing musical performances, dances, or poems based around specific weather formations.

All of these ideas can be adjusted based on the grade level and tweaked based on the subject.  

Drawing as a Tool for Learning Observation Skills

The concept of connecting art to science isn’t new. Over the centuries, drawing has been essential to science curricula, as biologists and other experts had no other way of conveying what they saw. Scientists took drawing classes to learn how to observe, so they could watch and convey certain animal behaviors.

With the advent of video and photography, this process has changed. Jennifer Landin is a biology professor at North Carolina State University who taught her students drawing techniques to bring back this particular skill of observing and noting important details.

“Since some species of dragonfly can only be distinguished from others by the vein patterns in their wings, skipping details is not an option,” she writes. Art becomes a tool to help students slow down and further learn about their subjects.

Engineering Concepts Explained Through Art

Combining engineering concepts with art can be more tangible for parents and teachers exploring concepts like forces, centers of mass, and gravity. The Teach Engineering blog recently created a guide for educators who are looking for art projects related to engineering concepts outside of traditional bridge building. These include:

  • Students constructing mobiles to discuss air currents and gravity.
  • Making pop-up books to express themselves creatively while learning about design and paper engineering.

Both of these lessons can fit naturally in an art class lesson plan, while still tapping into relevant STEM skills. It’s also possible to tuck some math lessons into these projects as students learn about the ideas of greater than, less than, and equal to by trying to balance a mobile.

Assembling Real-World Objects to Discuss Geometric Concepts

Creating art projects in classes like math and science isn’t limited to students in younger grades. Brigid at Math Giraffe says her middle school students enjoy creating Geometry Scrapbooks, for which they find examples of geometrical concepts in the real world.

Any sort of “real world” scavenger hunt can challenge kids to get creative and use their math skills outside of the classroom. Students can photograph the items or bring them into class to solve additional problems related to the project.

For younger students, this is also an opportunity to engage parents in what they’re learning so they can better connect to the math concepts as well.   

Combining Math Class With Art History

Educator Danielle Hittle at Playful Learning shares a great lesson plan for engaging students with math and art concepts at the same time. The class starts with a slideshow and history lesson of Piet Mondrian’s art, which exclusively uses primary colors and bold black lines. Then, using calculations for area and perimeter, students were given their own paper and paints in order to create their own Piet Mondrian piece.

Students measure the paper, draw squares and paint them before presenting their finished art to the class. Is this a math lesson or an art lesson? The answer is both because they’re so closely intertwined and essential for the project.

Turning Math Lessons Into Art Projects

Erica at What Do We Do All Day shared an activity she does with her son that other parents can replicate. She looked up the first 50 or so values for Pi and printed them out on a sheet for her son. Then she handed him markers and graphing paper and asked him to color squares for each number of Pi. This way, the number three creates a three-story building, while the number one creates a one story building.

By the time the kids reach the end of the page, the paper looks like a skyline of high and low letters. This is a great activity to explain how pie is never-ending while letting kids get creative with colors and the background of the skyline.

Exploring Nature of Space With Bubble Prints

Bubble printing is a popular method of painting that uses recycled bottles, old socks, food coloring and dish soap. This means it’s a low-budget activity for teachers who are strapped for resources and a fun activity for parents on the weekend.

Jean Van’t Hul at The Artful Parent shares a guide for bubble painting, but it’s possible for parents and educators to take this lesson to the next level. Consider asking students to paint their favorite animal or draw an animal from what they paint. From there, they can research the animal and present their findings to the class. Suddenly a fun art project becomes an exploration of biology.

Connecting With Kids Through Art and Magnets

Anne, the genius behind Left Brain Craft Brain shares a variety of activities that parents and kids can do together to explore STEM through art, many of which can translate to the classroom. One of her recent five-minute craft ideas tapped into using magnets to create paintings. Kids simply dip magnets into paint, place them onto paper and then move them across the page using a magnet underneath.

Parents and teachers can upgrade by using different objects to create different “paint strokes,” or using objects with different magnetisms to show how some objects are easier to move than others.
These ideas are really just the tip of the iceberg for incorporating STEM lessons into art class and making science or math more artistic. Students who are able to combine their left and right brains can shine as both sides grow along with their confidence in their artistic and logical abilities.