Schools mixing art and science to create STEAM

Andrew Bennett-Jackson (right), a graduate student who works for Drexel University’s ExCITe Center, helps Roxborough High School graduate Darr Freeman work with a student-designed prosthetic arm. Roxborough created a STEAM lab through collaboration with Drexel and a five-year $2.5 million grant. ( MARGO REED / Staff Photographer )

Playing with blocks in kindergarten isn’t what it used to be. That quickly becomes clear in a new lab at Drexel Hill’s Holy Child Academy, where 5-year-old Sophie Munch is using her iPad to steer a Sphero, a tiny round robot, through the tunnels and under the bridges of a long, child-built maze of wooden blocks.

At a nearby computer, two sixth graders are honing their multimedia publishing skills through Photoshop, turning an image of their science teacher blue and grafting hair onto his balding head.

The scene pleases Margaret Fox-Tully, head of school at the private K-8 Catholic academy. She sees the room’s mix of creative projects, blending science, art, and design, as one giant leap in the development of skills her students will likely need for the futuristic workforce that awaits them in the 2030s.

Holy Child’s recently installed $150,000 lab is just one outpost in a rapidly advancing education movement called STEAM. A decade ago, the idea that began trending in the nation’s schools was STEM, a concentrated focus on science, technology, engineering, and math, the widely acknowledged victims of instructional neglect. Now, acronym-loving education innovators are powering STEM with STEAM, integrating tech-oriented learning with the freer-form, risk-taking processes of the arts, represented by the A in the acronym.

“One of the things we’re excited about is, it’s OK if it doesn’t work. That leads to creative problem-solving,” said Fox-Tully, watching as a frustrated Sophie temporarily snagged Sphero in the maze and declared, “I can’t do it!”

The broad ability to adapt to challenges is more important than a narrow technological skill, especially when educators can’t easily predict what talents tomorrow’s workers will need, Fox-Tully said. “The 10 hottest jobs today,” she noted, “didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

STEAM education’s guru is former Rhode Island School of Design president John Maeda, who holds degrees in computer science, electrical engineering, and classical design. Support has come from such disparate voices as U.S. Department of Education bureaucrats and Sesame Street Muppets. The movement has even given rise to a bipartisan “STEAM Caucus” in Congress, which in March protested President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts.

“We know the power of integrating arts across disciplines,” the caucus said in a statement. “Activating both sides of the brain prepares people to be innovative and creative, both critical to growing our 21st century economies and creating good jobs.”

In the Philadelphia region, a growing number of districts, as well as private and charter schools, are integrating STEAM principles into their curriculums, and several have invested heavily in labs with 3-D printers and other high-tech creative tools. They include the Colonial School District in Montgomery County, which is embedding STEAM equipment and professionally accoutered labs throughout its schools, and Philadelphia’s Roxborough High School, which recently opened a lab as part of a $2.5 million federal grant to promote STEAM and medical learning for underserved students. Seventy-eight students in the school’s STEAM Scholars Program participate, with lab sessions scheduled throughout the week. Kids can also pop in during free time.

Youngmoo Kim, director of Drexel’s ExCITe Center and an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is a key collaborator on the Roxborough program. STEAM, also known as “the maker movement,” recognizes that artistic aptitude is as critical to invention as the ability to solve equations, he said. For instance, a key feature of secure digital communication was invented by an actress (Hedy Lamarr) and a composer (George Antheil).

Gabe D’Angelo and Bella Catini, both 5, learn to steer a Sphero robot through a maze using an iPad in the STEAM lab at Holy Child Academy in Drexel Hill. (AMY COLEMAN)

Advocates stress the artistic bent of civilization’s great inventors, from Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs, who built an empire as much on sleek design as on the power of microprocessors, and the 19th-century English mathematician Ada Lovelace, whose knowledge of fabric patterns helped her develop algorithms.

Further, supporters argue that STEAM could help address the paucity of young women choosing tech careers, even as these become America’s fastest-growing job categories. Holy Child’s Fox-Tully said she also hopes that with early STEAM education, students will feel less pressured to choose between a science or nonscience career path. “We’re trying to avoid the switch that happens in the third or fourth grade, where they say: ‘I’m not a math kid, I’m not a science kid.’ ”

In the Colonial district, which covers Plymouth, Whitemarsh, and Conshohocken, administrators are planning a dramatic makeover that seamlessly integrates STEAM features throughout its buildings. Already, old-school departments such as tech-ed, art, business, and computer science have been merged into a new Entrepreneur, Design and Innovation Department, which takes up the first floor of a freshly renovated wing at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School.

Embedded in the department is a Fab Lab from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which installs laser cutters, milling machines, and other “molecular assemblers” that MIT promises can be used to build almost anything, from wind and solar turbines to medical devices. The Fab Labs are just part of a growing STEAM-education industry that includes universities and private firms such as Creative Learning Systems (CLS), which installed Holy Child “SmartLab” and is conducting 100 projects nationwide this year.

“We’re preparing them for college or the career workforce,” said Sergio Anaya, Colonial’s curriculum supervisor of innovation and learning, as he walked through the space that holds an array of small 3-D printers and two commercial-grade printers, laser cutters, and all manner of robotics.  There are also computer numerical control machines, which use microcomputers to control machine tools. “Kids can go through our jewelry course, and with a little savvy can probably start their own Etsy business,” said Anaya, referring to the online market where people can sell handmade goods.

STEAM labs aren’t cheap. The CLS SmartLab typically runs from $150,000 to $250,000, which could raise questions of equity for poorer districts looking to launch programs. Roxborough’s lab was funded from a five-year, $475,000-a-year grant from a minority health program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — money that also pays for field trips and training with grad students or health-care professionals.

So far, the lab is a modest affair, with two rolling computers and a small 3-D printer. Still, it was a boon to 17-year-old Darr Freeman, who used it to learn soldering and 3-D design, and constructed a heart-rate monitor. Freeman, who is headed to Lincoln University to study criminology, said he’s learned “how to think outside the box” — and outside Roxborough High.

One of his favorite STEAM activities was visiting Drexel University College of Medicine to try out its simulation lab. Students drew blood, sutured an incision, delivered babies, even helped a fainting colleague, all virtually.

“It opened my eyes a lot,” Freeman said, “to things I didn’t even know existed.”