The green-lighting of a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study investigating the value of integrating arts and humanities into science and technology education is a milestone in the global transdisciplinary education movement, said Carol LaFayette, a visualization professor at Texas A&M University and founder of an advocacy network on the vanguard of the movement.
With initial support from the National Science Foundation, LaFayette created the Network for Sciences Engineering, Arts & Design (SEAD Network) to advocate for STEM to STEAM — namely, adding art and design components, the "A," to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching and learning.
Advocates argue STEAM education significantly raises the communication, critical thinking and creative skills that scientists, engineers, technologists and health care providers employ in problem solving.
The National Academies’ two-year study will investigate whether and how a STEAM education can better prepare students to address compelling challenges facing our society like global stewardship, affordable health care for an increasingly aging population, and other issues.
The study, said LaFayette, marks the first time the STEAM movement has been considered by an organization with the advisory clout of the National Academies, a nonprofit society of distinguished scholars that provides independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation and conducts additional activities to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions.
“This report is going to be influential,” she said. “It could lead to new organizational structures that result in major transdisciplinary education initiatives in K-12 and higher education.”
Investigators will also examine the value of integrating more STEM curricula and experiences into humanities and arts students’ curricula.
Announced at the December 2015 National Academies conference in Washington, D.C., the study will be led by Thomas Rudin, the director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Higher Education and Workforce, and will be shaped by a yet-to-be-named panel of engineers, medical doctors, scientists, artists and designers.
The momentum for STEAM education was brought about by vigorous advocacy of numerous organizations, including the SEAD Network, which has advanced its cause through conferences, workshops and research. SEAD received NSF funding in 2011 with LaFayette, who also heads the Institute for Applied Creativity, as its principal investigator.
“The educators, researchers, artists, scientists, engineers, designers, makers, and entrepreneurs in SEAD and other like-minded groups passionately believe in STEAM education,” said LaFayette. “There are people all over the country who have never previously collaborated. Their participation in SEAD activities and their belief in the importance of STEAM have raised national awareness of the topic to unprecedented levels.”
At the National Academies gathering where the study was announced, a conference publication included a paper by Richard Miller, president of the Olin College of Engineering, who quoted a report published at the 2015 World Economic Forum summarizing the skills that 21st century graduates need.
“To thrive in a rapidly evolving, technology-mediated world, students must not only possess strong skills in areas such as language arts, mathematics and science, they must also be adept at skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, persistence, collaboration, and curiosity,” said the report’s executive summary.