The Arts Are Not a Luxury

The Arts Are Not a Luxury
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It's really time to stop tiptoeing around the vital role of the arts in education.

Maybe it's also time for the Congress to put the A into STEM.

Major provisions of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010--also known as the STEM act--are set to expire this year. At this time, according to the Congressional Research Service in a report issued last month, "the 113th Congress will have the opportunity to reconsider this act and its policy contributions. Those contributions include, among other things, funding authorizations for certain federal physical sciences and engineering research programs, as well as selected STEM (i.e., science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs."

President George W. Bush, you may remember, signed the America COMPETES Act in 2008 which authorized $151 million to help students earn a bachelor's degree, math and science teachers to get teaching credentials, and provide additional money to help align kindergarten through grade 12 math and science curricula to better prepare students for college.

This is the time for another reauthorization and for STEAM to replace STEM as the message Washington needs to communicate.

It isn't clear if anything is happening in the house or senate although, according to the Americans for the Arts, a bipartisan team headed by Representatives Suzanne Bonamici and Aaron Schock, was formed "to increase awareness of the importance of STEAM education and explore new strategies to advocate for STEAM programs." Further they hoped, that:

"Introduction of the STEAM Caucus will cast a larger net of awareness for improving arts education. The Congressional Arts Caucus as well as the STEAM Caucus will simultaneously serve the arts community by illustrating that art can be a part of their policy solutions."

The caucus itself marks an auspicious beginning for STEAM in the Congress. So too, was the 2010 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the Art of Science Learning to produce three conferences--in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois and San Diego, California--to look at what business, education, and communities across the United States were doing to merge the "two cultures" of art and science.

In the process, Harvey Seifter, head of the project and founder of the Art of Science Learning firm, explored a framework for sparking creativity and innovation in our schools, our workplaces and in our nation; and proposals that the NSF might find attractive to underwrite.

It has too, a lot more.

NSF, in its more recent award this year, made clear that it hopes a new model for education will become apparent over the next few years. While the grant itself was relatively small ($2,654,895) it called for "Integrating Informal STEM and Arts-Based Learning to Foster Innovation."

Specifically they stated:

The goal of the project's development activities is to experiment with a variety of "innovation incubator" models in cities around the country. Modeled on business "incubators" or "accelerators" that are designed to foster and accelerate innovation and creativity, these STEM incubators generate collaborations of different professionals and the public around STEM education and other STEM-related topics of local interest that can be explored with the help of creative learning methodologies such as innovative methods to generate creative ideas, ideas for transforming one STEM idea to others, drawing on visual and graphical ideas, improvisation, narrative writing and the process of using innovative visual displays of information for creating visual roadmap.

Earlier this year the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announced its grant agenda in art and science and said proposals that demonstrate how both subjects can be woven together in an artwork, or play, demonstration or lab experiment or even an educational effort costing no more that $10, 000 to $100,000 were welcomed.

Bill O'Brian, senior adviser for Innovation programs at the NEA said that "creativity and innovation" clearly support U.S. economic interests and he expected this effort to continue well beyond the current request for applications. He also noted that the government community of artists and scientists are very much in agreement that these are the kinds of things they wish to fund.

Like the NSF, he stopped short of endorsing STEAM per se -- but it now may be time to change the focus and change the vocabulary too...and thus send a message to schools across the country.

Already, according to VOXII, an independent news source, "there's a new national movement aiming to add an A--as in arts--into the STEM plan, thus turning STEM education into STEAM education."

Emerging as the leader of the initiative is the Rhode Island School of Design [RISD]. Babette Allina, RISD's Director of Government Relations said:

"We believe providing the skills that art and design give students will prepare them for the workforce and for career opportunities that haven't been defined yet. Frankly, it's the kind of creativity that is also inherent in the scientists that lead to innovation. If you look at a really creative scientist and a really creative artist, they share a lot of similar characteristics of how they approach problem solving."

Other good things are also occurring.

A STEAM Journal has been launched out of the Claremont Graduate School at Claremont University (CGU), the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) started a site called STEAM Connect, and PBS, NPR, MSNBC, The New York Times and other media outlets are now discussing STEAM and the role of an art based education. Robin Bronk of the New York based Creative Coalition, a social and public advocacy arm of the entertainment industry, recently appeared on the Chris Mathews TV program with actor Sharon Stone to talk about STEAM versus STEM.

Perhaps even more importantly, in Dallas, Portland, Chicago and cities across the nation, or the whole state of North Carolina, school districts are rethinking the curriculum and beginning to find ways to use the arts and art integration to give young people the skills they need to be vital part of the new economy workforce...a workforce which will demand a focus on creativity and innovation.

Robert Lynch, President of the American for the Arts has said recently that "The arts are America's secret weapon in developing our communities and cities." I know what he means but we can't keep it a secret anymore.

It's been almost 5 years since artists and educators, parents and politicians began to ask: "Why not STEAM, not just STEM?" Yes, some good things are happening but not enough. Changing STEM to STEAM will accelerate the larger process, and provide the stimulus America badly needs.

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