Tuesday, October 20, 2015

STEAM Acronym Conversations I've Had Lately




This year, every school in our board will be participating in an inquiry to explore STEAM education. Two weeks ago we launched this initiative with a kick-off event for secondary teachers at the Education Centre.

STEAM is part of my job title; it is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. We anticipated some uncertainty about what this would look like in schools, particularly in secondary schools where we naturally separate the subjects into different rooms, hallways, or wings of our school buildings. I am proud that this acronym is part of my title, though I might add that I've had my fill of STEAM puns and jokes for the time being. (These include, but are not limited to 'STEAM rooms,' 'getting STEAMy,' references to trains and conductor's hats, and the use of phrases like 'full STEAM ahead!'...I'm sure you get the idea.) 

I have had many conversations with teachers in the two weeks since the secondary STEAM launch. There are lots of great ideas brewing as school teams decide what direction their projects will take. Interestingly, many of my conversations with teachers have touched on the acronym itself. Months ago, when the idea to focus on STEAM was ‘born’ at the SCDSB, we were aware that the acronym might be met with some raised eyebrows. It turns out we were right!


Acronym Conversations, Type 1: “Where’s my letter?”
  • Can I ‘do STEAM’ if I am a History teacher?
  • I don’t teach Science and I’m not comfortable with Math. I don’t see myself in this.
  • I teach a Foods class and would like to incorporate some Science and Geography. Does this count?

It is obvious from these conversations that the STEAM acronym understates the scope of this work. Focusing on the letters puts us at rick of limiting our thinking. It leaves out the ‘H’ from History, the ‘C’ from Civics, and the ‘G’ from Geography. Social Studies, Health and Physical Education, Business, Modern Languages, are also missing (I'm sure you'll let me know if I have missed 'your' letter). Imagine the possibilities if we bring in other subjects: SHAM, SASS, GAME, CHAT, CHEATS, BEACH, CHASM, GAMES…

I can picture students creating wearable electronics in fashion class, advocating for community needs through kinetic art projects created using found materials, or partnering with schools across the world to learn about the impact of water pollution on health and well-being. I want everyone to hear, loud and clear, that this project can include your letter, even if it's not one of the letters in the slide deck.


Acronym Conversations, Type 2: “There are too many letters!”
  • I already do STEM really well. Do I need Art?
  • I can imagine bringing some Art into my Math class, but Science too?!?
  • I’m a Tech teacher. I think I do these things already, just not all at once.

It is clear to me that the other problem with the acronym is that it may imply that the removal of a letter diminishes the value of subject integration, suggesting that STEM, MAST, SEAM, TEAS, SEM, MST, TEM, ST, SM, MT, ET, ES, and EM, when done well, are less valuable than STEAM.

Unless subject-specific departments and course codes disappear from secondary school it will be difficult for most teachers to engage in '5-letter STEAM' in a rich way. In our team’s view, every time we purposefully integrate skills and knowledge from more than one discipline into our teaching, we are bringing STEAM education to our students. Teachers who are helping students make these transdisciplinary connections are doing a great job being STEAMy! In this case, the upcoming inquiries may be an opportunity for these teachers to share their good practice within or among schools, or may allow them to meet with like-minded teachers to explore a particular area of interest such as assessment.


So what?

In giving this initiative a name we certainly did not intend to strictly define – or limit – its boundaries. I hope that teachers will be able to look beyond the acronym and see two things: that STEAM already lives in their schools, and that the possibilities for this project are endless.


The word STEAM has become a word that encompasses everything we love about student-driven, inquiry-based learning that integrates a variety of skills and concepts from across our curriculum. As one colleague correctly stated, we could just call it ‘SCHOOL!’