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STEAM Education: Blending the Arts and STEM for a Dynamic Future

Audio engineer teaches a student using a STEAM education

By Tiffany, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

“You know, there’s math in music” my piano teacher said as I lowered my hands from the keyboard. With one simple phrase, she sent my 12-year-old mind into a cyclone, questioning the sneaky places that math might also be hiding without warning. As the daughter of two accountants, I considered this statement as an attack on a whimsical, free flowing form of expression — all of the things I did not know math could be. This was my introduction to STEAM, a concept more commonly captured and embraced by our 21st century world.

As the popularity of STEM education and majors has soared, students have been divided into two buckets: the science kids and the arts/humanities kids. This has led a lot of science kids to miss out on the benefits of an arts/humanities education, and vice versa. As the world and global industries become more interdisciplinary, these two different tracks are combining to give students the opportunity to get the best of both worlds while remaining specialists in their core interests.

What Is STEAM?

In the gaming industry, there are video games like Rock Band, Dance Dance Revolution, and Guitar Hero. Large movie animation studios have replaced hand drawn sketches with digital suites and tools. These examples demonstrate the unique outcomes created when the analytical principles of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are immersed into and through the arts. The “A” in STEAM stands for the arts, but even this subcategory can use explanation. In the context of STEAM, the arts extend beyond music, drama, dance and visual arts to include humanities, language arts, and even design.

STEAM Careers and Industries

The infusion of the arts can be most apparent in several prominent STEM industries including computer science, biomedical engineering, civil engineering, and urban planning. However, fields that traditionally rely on a strong artistic skill now also require strong STEM skills including sustainable architecture and graphic design/marketing. Employees must be able to nimbly identify a problem, research solutions, design effective prototypes by continually testing and modifying the product, and ultimately communicate their outcomes effectively. Such skills sets rely on multiple academic disciplines and approaches.

STEAM in Higher Education

In response to these evolving careers and industries valuing both science and arts skills, the higher education landscape has grown increasingly interdisciplinary in nature. STEM curricula have been redesigned to include more foundational art courses as well as more freedom for students declaring a major in a STEM department to balance it with a minor in the arts. Taking it one step further, universities have also created majors reflecting the principles of STEAM education.

  • Georgia Tech proudly offers music technology as well as literature, media, and communication as majors.
  • Yale University’s website describes one of its fastest growing majors, History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health, as “an interdisciplinary program that focuses on how different forms of knowledge and technology have been created in various times, places, and cultures, and how they have shaped the modern world.”
  • Cornell University’s 80 undergraduate majors include biology and society, as well as design and environmental analysis. Majors like these combine STEM and humanities concepts.

Prospective applicants to these universities can celebrate these changes as they not only mean dynamic academic experiences await enrolling students, but that these universities also have admissions officers charged with the mission to fill these multidimensional programs — giving them an opportunity to stand out.

STEAM in High School

The adoption of STEAM in industry and higher education signals to many high school students that they are no longer faced with the dilemma of choosing one track over the other. Woven into the ideals of STEAM are the possibilities and the expectation to be both analytical and creative. A high school student actively, authentically embracing STEAM can stand out through the undergraduate admissions process, and there are countless combinations to demonstrate STEAM interests. Curriculum or academic coursework is one example. STEM students are often tempted to “double down” in math or science, leaving little room for other subjects. A STEAM student may add an art as an elective or try an independent study allowing for an artistic take on a STEM field.

Outside of the classroom, STEAM students may play a central role in theatre or the wind ensemble, in addition to being the lead designer of the robotics team or president of the Pre-Med Club. Model United Nations or the debate team can pair nicely with science fair research when intersecting with a student’s interests. How? Research for a science fair project is often conducted independently and conveyed through written abstracts — usually on a topic that aligns with a student’s core interest like biology, pre-med, or something similar. Model UN, on the other hand, challenges students to work in collaboration with others to appropriately represent a global perspective, as well as to practice the art of communicating verbally and persuasively. When combined, these activities may plant the seeds for work in an intersecting field, like Public Health Policy — where the interest in the scientific field combines with the more collaborative area of policy-making.

As an admissions officer at MIT, I often encountered students incredibly eager to display their analytical aptitude through STEM courses, math teams, and scientific research. However, students who connected these feats to innovation, communication, and creativity were really able to stand out in the admissions process. Now as a counselor, I encourage students to look for the connections between disciplines and express their voices creatively.

In my opinion, the pursuit or inclusion of the arts in an applicant’s high school experience should not be seen as the opposite of effective STEM preparation, but rather an extension. The expressions of emotion, opinion, and voice the arts allow can be translated to the essential communication skills STEM fields depend upon.

Education is constantly evolving, and at IvyWise we work with students to help them tap into their individual passions in order to pursue the activities and academics that truly interest them and will lead to a successful higher education experience and, ultimately, a career. If you’re not sure where to start with your college prep, search, or academic exploration contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.

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