There has been considerable recent discussion of the importance of improving our STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) educational system at every stage in society: formal primary, secondary, and higher education; life-long and evergreen learning; and education of the general public. Exploiting the intuitive reach of art can be essential to conveying more effectively the critical messages of science, technology, AND medicine to our citizens; to enabling more informed choices about our future; and to building an innovative workforce. Furthermore, evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of this connection will be required to secure the resources and support necessary for required changes along the continuum of education. Can a “learning educational system” be developed to identify what current forms of art and design—visual, musical, multimedia interactive displays, both real and virtual—are most effective, and to identify possible new forms?
Laurel Hamers, NAKFI Science Writing Scholar
University of California, Santa Cruz
The STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) group was asked to create a “learning educational system” to assess the benefits of integrating the arts into science, technology, engineering, and math education. Proponents of STEM to STEAM, as the movement is colloquially known, claim that incorporating principles of art and design into science education will make students more creative and better innovators.
STEAM education is already being implemented piecemeal across the country. However, in a test-driven educational system that increasingly devalues the arts, convincing cash-strapped school districts and time-crunched teachers to prioritize STEAM is a hard sell. Even more challenging is effecting change at the policy level. A major barrier to system-wide implementation is the lack of clear understanding of the long-term benefits of including the arts in science. This is difficult, if not impossible, to assess via standardized testing. As such, there is no coordinated plan to implement STEAM on a larger scale.
Moving Beyond STEAM
The group argued that bringing arts into STEM is too often one-sided: art is used as a tool to improve science education but isn’t valued on its own merits. Instead, the group envisioned an educational system that valued collaboration and integration across all disciplines. They wanted to see integration not just among scientists and artists, but also among engineers, historians, psychologists—an entire spectrum of specialists. And they wanted that collaboration to foster equal footing among the disciplines instead of inserting one into another.
Team members acknowledged that specialization can be important—one would expect a brain surgeon to have a solid grasp of the anatomy of the brain, for instance. But generally, the team felt that lack of cross-talk among disciplines hindered the ability to solve interdisciplinary global problems—issues like climate change and food shortages. By thinking about problems within the narrow focus of one field, researchers might miss important interpretations or context.
Such specialization starts young: team members noted that even children feel pressured to be either an “art person” or a “science person.” Students who want to be both are told they must choose—or that one must remain a hobby, not a career. The team decided that emphasizing interdisciplinary education in K-12 schools could help reduce this divide by encouraging students to think about problems across disciplines.
The Undisciplined Classroom
The team focused on teachers, noting that the current educational model encourages (and sometimes forces) teachers to stick to scripted lesson plans that devalue teacher creativity and advocate a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching. They created a model for what it termed the “Undisciplined Classroom”—a project to encourage and inspire educators to teach (and learn) beyond disciplines.
As a pilot experiment, the group proposed a 1-week immersion that would take place in a brick-and-mortar facility somewhere in the United States. During the retreat, teachers recruited from the surrounding community would be put into cross-discipline groups to think about a “big question”—something that could be explored from many different angles and at many different levels of education. One such proposed question was “Who am I?” Such a question could be explored on a scientific level, in terms of anatomy, physiology, and neuroscience. It could be tackled philosophically by discussing the meaning of the self. Or it could be investigated historically, by tracing family roots. The goal was to present a question that could not be properly answered within the constraints of one discipline, to challenge teachers to cross disciplinary boundaries. Other suggested questions included “What is time?” and “Why do we dream?”
Over the course of 1 week, teachers would discuss these questions and their differing approaches to teaching them through a mixture of structured and unstructured activities. Teachers would also receive feedback from researchers in different fields. Then, they would collaborate to design ways to implement such interdisciplinary measures in their own classrooms in cost- and time-effective ways. Attendees would be compensated for their time and provided with accommodations like childcare in order to make the experience feasible regardless of socioeconomic status.
Throughout the year, teachers would periodically be invited back to the Undisciplined Classroom for weekend follow-up support sessions. There, they’d be able to discuss what worked and what didn’t in their classrooms,
and provide feedback and support to their colleagues working toward the same goal.
The team did not fully agree on what the Undisciplined Classroom pilot project would look like from a physical perspective. Some imagined a rich, artistically designed place like a museum or gallery. Others proposed a more bare-bones multipurpose space or a black-box theater, thinking that these spaces left room for creativity but perhaps more closely resembled the resources teachers had to work with in their real classrooms.
From Workshop to Movement
The short-term goal of the team’s Undisciplined Classroom is to inspire educators and give them tools to make their own classrooms cross-disciplinary. The longer-term goal is to spark institutional and systems change from the bottom up. In addition to benefiting teachers, the space would also be a petri dish in which to study the effects of blending disciplines in education. Undisciplined Classroom alums and their students could be tracked in follow-up studies.
Eventually, the Undisiplined Classroom concept could be taken on the road, spreading to other communities and finding a wider audience. A traveling workshop could reach underserved communities where interdisciplinary collaborations have the greatest potential to improve student engagement and learning.
The data gathered from the Undisiciplined Classroom could also someday inspire a set of best practices to help other teachers incorporate these practices into their classrooms. The team envisioned an associated online portal where teachers could share their strategies with an even broader audience.
The team noted the lack of available resources for teachers hoping to teach beyond disciplines, as well as the numerous system-wide constraints encouraging them to stick to scripted lesson plans. They agreed that the Undisciplined Classroom would be an innovative way to inspire teachers to break that mold while simultaneously providing a way to monitor the effects of such educational practices.