Putting the Arts into STEM

Schools are embracing the concept of STEAM – putting the arts into science, technology, engineering and maths. Attain's Editor, Matthew Smith, talked to Fionnuala Kennedy and Claire Boyd of Wimbledon High School GDST to find out more.

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Most parents will have heard of STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – but not so many will have heard of STEAM. The difference is the addition of the arts into the mix. It might seem a strange partner to put alongside its four peers. This is especially the case for parents today who were at school in the 1990s, when it was quite usual to have to make a choice between going down a science or maths route – or opting for English, modern languages and the humanities. Fast forward thirty years and, on closer inspection, the arts – and creativity – are now obvious partners for the sciences and maths.

'The arts are already there. So I think the notion that STEM is separate from creativity and artistic endeavour is in itself a bit of a false binary,' explains Fionnuala Kennedy, Head of Wimbledon High School GDST. '...what science, technology, engineering and maths are doing is helping to solve problems for and on behalf of humanity. And what the arts are doing is exactly the same thing – they are exploring the problems and ideas behind being human. And so harnessing the two of those things together has to be the best possible way forward – both in terms of children's education but also for our society.'

This approach to subject matter is really an attempt to extend and enhance the learning patterns which begin at an early age. Young children approach learning in an all-inclusive way – without the unhelpful 'silos' of subjects to restrict them. This concept underpins a STEAM approach, with creativity and problem solving at the very heart.

'When you look at children at a very young age they are always wanting to know what's possible,' says Claire Boyd, Head of the Junior School at Wimbledon High. 'They want to know how far they can take something, how far you can push it before it's going to fall off the wall, how close can you get to it before you disappear inside it...! The children are just bursting with possibility when they arrive in the world. And so we see it as our absolute privilege and responsibility to only expand their capacity to think of the possibilities – that is the business of our commitment – and STEAM is that in spades!'

One key aspect of STEAM – technology – has been pushed forward considerably as a result of the pandemic. When it came to remote learning, children have adapted remarkably well – indeed, in many ways it has been less comfortable for teachers than for pupils. As adults, we often see technology as something separate and sometimes a hurdle to be overcome; whereas for children, technology is just a background process.

Fionnuala Kennedy and Claire Boyd discuss children's engagement with technology during the pandemic.

'One of the biggest hurdles we had to overcome in taking our education online was how we put ourselves within the content generation element of what we were doing – how we felt comfortable leading lessons online,' explains Claire Boyd. 'But the children in our classrooms did not have that same sense of trepidation. They saw this as a landscape where they were able to interact quite freely, quite quickly... And if we try to lean into that positively – the capacity that we have to be able to really broaden our horizons when we are seeking to problem solve – really the opportunities are limitless and that starts at such a young age.'

The pandemic has also emphasised the well-rehearsed notion of schools needing to prepare pupils for careers not yet invented. Indeed, the seismic shift caused by the pandemic means we will be emerging into a very different world to the one of late 2019. Yet some of the key skills which employers need – the ability to be flexible, cope with change and uncertainty – have been brought to the fore and tested in a way nobody thought possible.

'I think with STEAM people talk about the connections between subjects but we are also really interested in looking at the seeming gaps – the spaces, the pauses and silences – between subjects where we haven't yet answered any questions,' says Fionnuala Kennedy. 'And I think being able to sit with uncertainty... will actually develop kids for that future because we have all had to sit with uncertainty in the last year... And I think with STEAM, knowing that you don't know but if you look at it through a different lens – or if you try and connect it in a different way – that gap might suddenly be bridged is really exciting...'

Claire Boyd agrees: 'It has given a snapshot of the type of flexibility we will all need – hopefully not always in such dire circumstances – but those sorts of liquid skills of being able to work together and be very agile... The critical component for success that STEAM offers is this opportunity to always be enquiry focused... the opportunity to measure my impact.'

For parents, all this highlights even more why it is important not to think back to how things were in the past, during their time at school. The unhelpful specialisation tendency is giving way to a desire to maintain a much broader curriculum outlook for as long as possible, with the ability to mix-and-match much more freely. 'Of course, the caveat to that is if you want to be a doctor you probably should do biology and chemistry!' reminds Fionnuala Kennedy. 'I think part of the problem with education... is we have all been educated, so we all think we know what we are talking about when it comes to schools and schooling. And there are very few other realms of experience and careers where that's the case. But our view on this is so outmoded if we only go from our own experience....'

Claire Boyd and Fionnuala Kennedy reflect on the various skills children have had to learn and develop during the pandemic.

I suggest to Fionnuala Kennedy that in essence, without the arts, science is weaker: 'Absolutely! And the arts have always been there.' She finds the stereotype that 'mathematicians aren't creative' surprising. 'Mathematicians are pattern spotters and they use patterns to create new, beautiful solutions to things – just like composers do, or artists do... or poets do. They are very, very similar skillsets. And we find with our girls often the best musicians are also the best mathematicians – they go hand in hand.'

Fionnuala Kennedy and Claire Boyd of Wimbledon High School GDST were talking to Attain's Editor, Matthew Smith.

You can listen to the full interview in Episode 15 of Fresh Thinking, Attain's weekly podcast for parents.

Matthew Smith Photo

Matthew Smith is the Editor of Attain.

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