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25 January 2017

STEAM: Is it just all hot air?

On Tuesday evening during National Inter-Cohort Week in Geelong, an expert panel discussed STEAM and whether there is a false dichotomy between the arts and sciences.

TransformEdx held a number of speaker series throughout this years’ National Inter-Cohort Week.

On the Tuesday evening, Cohort 2016 and 2017 Associates gathered in the Deakin University Market Hall for a panel discussion on the topic of STEAM – which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

The discussion was facilitated by Shane Woon (Cohort 2012) who is a Teach For Australia Alumni Assessor and a teacher at Point Cook Senior Secondary College.

The panel included Alumna Michaela Epstein (Cohort 2012), Director of Research and Innovations at Maths Pathway, Alumnus James Bayard (Cohort 2014), Science Learning Area Leader at Northern Bay P-12 College, and Bernadette Walker-Gibbs, Associate Professor of Education at Deakin University.

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Why is STEM so important for schooling today?

The panel began by examining the current emphasis on 21st century skills in education. Shane asked the panelists why science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects are so important for schooling today.

Bernadette Walker-Gibbs argued that “STEM subjects haven’t always been the most important subjects in school”. She believes that the growing prominence of “evidence-based curriculum” has ultimately shifted the focus of schools.

 “STEM is seen to be important because it is objective and we live in an evidence-based society,” said Bernadette.

But, what does the acronym actually mean?

James argued, “STEM is not just a bunch of robots, it’s about how to use evidence-based thinking and design processes – which is ultimately connected to the arts.”

He counteracted the widespread notion that the discipline of science is at odds with the arts: “We create this conflict that we don’t need to.”

Michaela Epstein claimed the acronym itself, STEM, is highly problematic given that many students do not understand what each letter means or know why they are taught the subjects.

“STEM is confusing,” James agreed, reiterating that the term itself should be used to describe critical thinking and design processes, rather than individual subjects.

And what about the acronym STEAM?

“I think the acronym of STEAM is a fad, and that’s a problem. But the idea is sound in terms of helping humanise science, technology and engineering,” James expressed.

Michaela agreed, suggesting “The whole thing is a fad… why are we excluding languages, nutrition and physical health – all which are fundamental to learning?”

Bernadette acknowledged that STEAM is an important acronym because it acknowledges that the acronym, STEM, is limited:

“Putting the A into STEM takes away that binary of science and arts – STEM is seen as “cool”, which is insulting to the rest of the subject areas,”

“The acronym is a fad, but STEM subjects will always be important,” she argued.

The panelists ultimately agreed that while STEAM is a problematic term that excludes many other important disciplines, it is important to remind educators and students that the arts continues to play an equally important role in 21st century education.

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STEM and STEAM: how can teachers bring it altogether?

“A lot of you incorporate maths, history, geography and science into your classrooms already, without realising that you’re actually teaching another discipline,” Michaela recognised.

She suggested Associates should try to recognise how they automatically incorporate other disciplines into their classrooms and try to make it explicit to the students that they are learning from another subject area.

“The biggest problem in maths is students’ fear of it – they are scared of trying and failing. So, the more we can normalise maths in every part of other subjects, the easier it becomes for teachers and maths students to believe they are capable of it themselves,” she reasoned.

James suggested that Associates could incorporate different disciplines into their classrooms by focusing on the skills and capabilities that they want their students to have.

So, what’s most needed in 2017 classrooms?

“Take a risk with who you are and don’t be afraid to fail,” Bernadette encouraged.

“I’d like to see everyone bring their passion to the classroom and passion for what you want to see your students achieve,” said James.

Michaela informed Associates of the importance of using language wisely: “I use the phrase “talk maths up” because we need to give maths a better reputation to encourage our students,” she reasoned.

Shane and the guest panelists agreed that teachers must play an active role in encouraging students into all subject areas: “Never put another subject area down,” he warned.

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Following the event, Kirrin Brown (Cohort 2016) who teaches science at Lavers Hill P-12 College said she gained a lot from the panel discussion:

“I’d like to incorporate the processes and design-thinking side of STEM into my science classes,” she agreed.

“I would also love to be able to incorporate arts and the creative side of things into the classroom in the future,” said Kirrin.

The STEAM panel discussion drew upon many current issues related to the teaching profession, job skills in the modern era, student’s mindsets and “fads” in education. The Associates gained a lot from the wide range of interesting topics explored and will work to become inclusive of all subject areas in their respective disciplines throughout their upcoming year in the classroom.

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