STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, and math, is heralded by many as the gold standard in American education for its ability to teach job skills and create economic growth.  Certainly the world needs doctors, engineers, scientific researchers, inventors, and technology specialists, but there is also a growing movement called STEAM (science, technology, engineering, ART, math) advocating for the importance of the arts in education.  The debate surrounding STEM vs. STEAM is one of strong and varied opinions.

We in the Education Department at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum decided to take matters into our own hands by creating a STEM tour at the Museum – a STEAM tour, if you will. The tour is based on the arts integration model in teaching where students learn about arts and non-arts concepts in the same lesson.  For example, our STEM tour includes Olafur Eliasson’s Your Imploded View in the Museum atrium to teach students about kinetic sculpture (art) and potential and kinetic energy (physics).  Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square series illustrates how an artist can approach color the same way a scientist might approach microbiology.  Albers set variables (color, pigment, ground, varnish) and constants (composition, canvas) to learn more about how perception of color functions.

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Aurora (1951-5)

Josef Albers, Homage to the Square: Aurora (1951-5)

Learning to look at art, and looking often, teaches students to make observations based on evidence, infer based on the observations, and ask questions to learn more.  Sounds a little bit like the scientific method, doesn’t it?  Those in favor of STEAM could cite broader educational benefits, including improved critical thinking skills and behavioral improvements.  But as the arts-integrated approach posits, it is equally important to note the independent value of learning about art.

Auguste Rodin, The Shade (1880).

Auguste Rodin, The Shade (1880).

The idea of combining STEM subjects and art may seem like trying to mix oil and water, but as we wrote the STEM tour, it became increasingly more obvious that the two camps cannot exist apart.  Auguste Rodin could not produce his sculpture without an intricate knowledge of the properties of wax and metal.  Paintings conservators would surely ruin a great many artworks without the tools to determine the chemical make-up of various paints.  And did you know that Alexander Calder trained as an engineer?

By Allison Fricke (Friday, September 6, 2013)

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