Gaining STEAM

Regardless of what lens we use when viewing the world, there is tremendous value in helping learners see the interconnectedness of various fields. When we make connections across content area boundaries, we recognize that no learning is truly one-dimensional. In fact, most learning requires us to tie multiple strands together to create a strong web of understanding in our long-term memory.

A focus on STEM, STEAM or STREAM demonstrates just that idea. By tying together science, technology, engineering and math -- as well as art and reading -- we can help learners see the cohesion that keeps many fields together, and we can help our educators in remembering that while content expertise is important, so too is the ability to connect that content expertise to the larger world experienced by those we serve.

While a different post might explore the challenges of identifying what a STEAM or STREAM program or curriculum really is, or how to embed a STEM program in a school system as either a separate class or embedded across different disciplines, this post will explore the practical benefits that an interdisciplinary vision provides when structuring professional learning.

All professional learning lives and dies by the level of engagement it creates. If adult learners can see the relevance, they are much more likely to change their practice. And just like with our younger learners, if we can connect disciplines together to give a clearer picture of how our professional learning and classroom work are parallel, then so much the better for our adult learners.

With this in mind, we have taken the following three steps to help us gain STEAM in interdisciplinary professional learning:

Reach out to underrepresented content areas.

One area where we have historically had large room for growth -- at least as long as I have been in my role -- is in providing learning opportunities for content areas outside of the big four: science, social studies, math and ELA. To address this, we’ve looked to put together opportunities that connect STEM fields with other content areas. For instance, this year we began running a collegial circle group for visual arts educators with a focus on STEM, which has allowed us not only to provide learning focused on the visual arts, but also to connect that work to STEM, a focal area for many districts. Hopefully, this has provided our learners with opportunities to further connect their expertise with STEM priorities in their schools and districts.

Leverage local expertise.

While district administrators have tremendous ability to provide support to districts in math, social studies, science and ELA, we don’t tend to be as connected to leaders in other fields of learning. However, our districts have tremendous local experience in these areas: the teachers who work with their students on a daily basis! By connecting with district leaders in our regional STEM meetings and through the network of assistant superintendents that we work with on a regular basis, we have identified educators who can provide support in areas that we traditionally have not addressed, and we have seen tremendous growth in professional learning opportunities catered to these educators.

Make it big.

Sometimes, to help show the value in an approach to learning, it has to make a big splash. For example, to design a learning support for teachers of music, we worked with a doctoral student who has built connections with musicians and music teachers to put together a symposium meant to highlight some of the many ways that teachers in the field of music can integrate technology into their work. Along with leveraging local talent and focusing on an area that we haven’t normally supported in the past, the doctoral student used many of the connections he has in the field to generate a large amount of press. He therefore alerted regional educators to the fantastic opportunity taking place in their backyard. This getting-the-word-out campaign not only improved the event in terms of attendees, but also grew it in terms of recognition, an outcome that bolstered the content area connections between music and technology.

Whether we use STEAM or STREAM to increase STEM connections, merging content areas doesn’t just make sense. Finding these leverage points is a great way for professionals in other disciplines -- those that might not have multiple learning opportunities designed with them in mind -- to gain STEAM.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website:www.fredende.com.

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