STEM vs. STEAM - Choosing the right education model

For years we’ve heard arguments for and against the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) models of education. Some have argued that there should be a strict focus on the sciences, while others have argued that the inclusion of the arts as an equal component would only serve to enhance the effectiveness of the other subject areas.

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” model for education, especially in a space such as Guyana, we must first try to understand exactly what the models are and how they were designed to function in order to determine which model could possibly be tailored to suit each particular situation here in Guyana.

So what exactly is STEM? In a nutshell, this model proposes an integrated application and approach to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics in order to provide solutions to real-world problems. STEAM, on the other hand, doesn’t just represent the inclusion of the word “Art” in the acronym; it proposes a seamless application of creative thinking to STEM projects, so that all students become engaged in the process. What many fail to recognise is that at the very core of art is problem-solving.

Art encourages creative thinking, strengthens visual learning, develops motor skills and improves decision-making capabilities. With STEAM, emphasis is placed on creative, object-based learning as a way of encouraging research, observation and critical analysis. Applied knowledge is therefore used to ensure more meaningful student engagement, which is important, particularly at a time when the numbers in Guyana have been pointing towards a steady decline.

Almost every other day we hear a teacher lament on how difficult it is to capture and hold the attention of their students for more than a few seconds at a time. Youths are now being trained from an early age to consume information and visual materials in record time. You need not look very hard for evidence to support this theory.

A casual observation of parenting trends would reveal exactly how the styles have changed over the years. Parents are now more likely to put an electronic tablet or some sort of mobile device in their baby’s hands once they’ve started sitting up on their own, as opposed to giving them a stuffed toy.

They submit to this demand for technology because their children respond much better to those interactive devices than they do to a good old-fashioned teddy bear. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Whichever comes first, it’s clear as day that the younger generations have mastered the use of mobile devices at an age when the most exciting thing for us (grown folk) probably involved chewing on our scented wax crayons.

No doubt this mastery of technology would’ve carried through to their adolescent years and placed them further ahead of the learning curve than we might’ve realised. A quick assessment of the social media habits of teenagers will show just how fast their brains are processing information and how easy it has become for them to master new technologies.

So how do we channel that speed and harness it into something that could see improvement in the level of education across the board? This is where STEM/STEAM comes in. Recently I’ve noticed increased STEM initiatives in and around Georgetown designed by members of the public and private sectors to engage the youths and improve their overall academic performance. Some programmes were designed specifically to tackle the significant decline in the area of Mathematics, while others were designed to encourage youths to consider future careers in coding, app development, etc.

Regardless of the focus of each initiative, it has been a refreshing shift away from the usual doom and gloom news, especially in relation to youth development in Guyana. This shift is exactly what we need to encourage the kind of critical and creative thinking necessary for youths to flourish in tomorrow’s job markets, more so in light of the huge oil discovery recently. We must recognise that technology is constantly evolving and our approach to education should follow suit. Otherwise, we run the risk of continuing down the path of decreased student engagement and increased failure/drop out rates.

The sudden buzz around STEM programmes also called to mind a speech delivered about two years ago at my college graduation. The guest speaker opined that all these years our perspective on STEM and STEAM has been skewed and that rather than viewing the sciences and arts as being mutually exclusive, it would be more beneficial to recognise that they work in conjunction with each other.

His speech immediately struck a chord with me, so much so that I still recall it every time I hear or read about STEM initiatives. Artists and engineers might hold different titles and might use different materials, but our process is essentially the same; the way our brains function is essentially the same. In my opinion, both areas draw on the strengths of each other. The problem has always been how they have been regarded traditionally, as being competitive rather than complementary.

Whether institutions move to amend the acronym is irrelevant, in my opinion. I’m not too concerned about the conspiracy theories that suggest a deliberate attempt to downplay or dismiss altogether the value of the arts to a student’s education. For me, the most important thing is to recognise the many ways art facilitates and encourages critical thinking.

We should all move to abandon old ways of considering the parameters of art and recognise that its value is something that cannot be measured quantitatively. It’s time to shelve the left brain/right brain ideology and recognise that we could only get so far with what some refer to as a “half-brain” education.

The focus should be finding new ways to engage students and encourage critical thinking, while activating both sides of their brains. How could we expect them to solve tomorrow’s problems when they’ve been trained only to exercise only their left brains or right brains? It simply won’t work (at least not very effectively). There is much more to be gained from the kind of education that supports the activation of both sides.

This article was first published in the Pepperpot magazine of the Sunday Chronicle newspaper on August 20, 2017. Click on the link to be redirected to their website:

#GuyanaChronicle #DominiqueHunter #STEM #STEAM

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