Put together an art teacher, a music teacher, and a science teacher, and what do you get?

At Dayton Regional STEM School in Ohio, you would get origami butterflies, illustrated storybooks, and watercolor paintings of cells.

At Taylor Elementary School in Virginia, you would get music and paintings about the life cycle of flowers.

These are just a couple of projects that were born from a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics) partnership among art, science, and music teachers and their students.

What is STEAM?

Advocated by John Maeda of the Rhode Island School of Design, STEAM integrates art and design with the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields that have become top priorities in the country’s education initiatives. Even though STEAM is grounded in the premise that creativity is the basis of innovation, you might not think that art and science would be likely partners. So, are they polar opposites, or are they actually similar?

Art and science: Polar opposites?

Well, history and research seems to show that these skills are comparable. Take a look at some of the most famous scientists. Telegraph inventor Samuel Morse was also a noted American painter. Leonardo da Vinci was a prolific artist, scientist, and inventor. In fact, a study published by Michigan State University’s Robert Root-Bernstein, Ph.D., found that almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences have been actively engaged in the arts, too.

Kate Cook and Jenny Montgomery from Dayton Regional STEM School claim that their partnership is successful because their content areas, art and science, can harmonize together. “Both artists and scientists aim to explore and make sense of the world,” Cook says. “While we use different lenses, they are often complementary.”

Initially, their partnership started when Montgomery’s art students displayed origami butterflies they made as part of a paper engineering project. Cook’s biology students were simultaneously studying the pollinators of various biomes, natural communities of flora and fauna. Cook and Montgomery started talking, and an exhibit between art and science students on specific biomes was created. From there, the partnership evolved into The Living Lens Project, a collaboration with a local aquarium to develop online exhibits and educational materials.

Working together inspired Cook and Montgomery to think about educational content in different ways. Cook says much of what is being learned in her biology class is “visual in nature.” In science, students spend a great deal of time creating and interpreting models through experimentation. And just as scientists rely on experimentation, artists also create a design or structure by trying different forms and functions. They sometimes use engineering and mathematical concepts to build their desired artistic outcome, too.

In the end, both artists and scientists take risks, make mistakes, and start over again with the ultimate goal of attaining an innovation or discovery.

At Taylor Elementary School, Jeremy Ferrara, Bianca Sanchez, and Elizabeth Ashley found that their students learned to better communicate and work as a group through collaboration.

“Rather than telling them what to do,” Sanchez says, “we present them with a problem, which force[s] them to think creatively.” Multiple studies show that a strong arts education improves a student’s cognition, memory, and attention skills in the classroom. Further, a 2002 study by Americans for the Arts also found that an arts education enhances problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, thereby increasing a student’s overall academic achievement in school.

Parents’ views of STEAM

STEAM projects are also part of parents’ learning curves, Sanchez says; as they see their children learn in new ways, they learn, too. The cross-curricular approach enabled by STEAM collaborations appeals to most parents who see the resulting, varied skills their children gain.

Working on Montgomery’s biomes project, says parent Robin Schrimsher, increased her son’s awareness of the problems faced by barrier reefs. “Engaging him in science content through the creativity of art has been an excellent tool for his learning,” Schrimsher says, “I even learned more about barrier reef problems because the project prompted my son to share information with me.”

Parent Chris Nash agrees, “The art education my son is receiving will open his eyes to the value of the arts.” The biome project, in which Nash’s son participated, impacted his appreciation of beauty in the world’s natural systems and human creations. Nash says it also demonstrated the importance of getting involved in the world and making it a better place.

Other parents, though, Sanchez says, had a view of STEAM as students merely singing songs about science. “So we had to help them understand that the arts are not just about drawing pictures and singing songs,” Sanchez says, adding that as more teachers see their students having success and excited about their work, they’ll be more willing to be a part of the STEAM way of teaching.

Perhaps, we’ll find another Albert Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci in our future.

Curious about STEAM in the classroom?

Here are some resources for additional reading.