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Building up STEAM: Adding the arts into STEM education efforts

Students work in Columbus College of Art & Design's College PreView program
Students work in Columbus College of Art & Design's College PreView program
National, state and local leaders have long pushed for investments in STEM education, which stands for the critical areas of science, technology, engineering and math. Yet a growing number of advocates believe these fields are missing a key component to truly ignite innovation – the arts. They argue that the arts nurture a creative ability to identify and view problems from different perspectives. For Ohio schools, turning STEM into STEAM poses significant challenges, starting with the breakdown of traditional barriers that delineate educational disciplines.
"Scientists and artists are both trying to get a better understanding of the world around us, but they are doing it through different lenses," says Kate Cook, a life science teacher at the Dayton Regional STEM School. "Nothing exists in a vacuum in the real world or in a school. It makes sense when we try to approach problems from multiple perspectives."

The numbers tell an interesting story. According to Ohio's ACT test profile report, approximately 6,000 graduating 2012 seniors intended to pursue arts in college versus 6,500 for engineering. In 2010 and 2011, those leaning toward the arts outnumbered students intending to major in engineering.
Some might argue that this creates an imbalance between degree output and demand for high-growth, high-wage jobs. The point is not moot: leading economic forecasting firm Economic Modeling Specialists, Intl. projects more than 10,000 annual job openings in Ohio for STEM occupations with a median wage of approximately $32 per hour. But STEAM advocates see a huge talent pool capable of meeting the labor market demand in the context of their artistic talents.

Building Up STEAM

Advocates say that integrating the arts into science education can deepen students' understanding of the material. Cook regularly engages in cross-curricular projects with school art teacher Jenny Montgomery, such as having students depict scientific things in an artistic way -- like watercolor illustrations of cells.

For the cell watercolor project, says Montgomery, students researched and painted different cell structures, and then compared their scientific artwork with their peers to see the visual differences. Montgomery says the project helped students to understand the wide variety of cell structures and functions. Next year, Cook and Montgomery plan to have students recreate various biomes in aquariums, and then introduce environmental hazards.
"My students will observe and draw changes that happen in the environment, and translate that into graphical design," says Montgomery, adding that their work will become part of a display at Dayton's Boonshoft Museum of Discovery.
The teachers say the cross-curricular projects require extra effort and continual refinement, but that it pays off in the rich learning experience without sacrificing content.

"We're having real success with kids that don't respond as well as they could with the traditional assessment methods," says Montgomery. "They are doing portfolios and placing a lot of value on reflections. The process is the important piece."
A path to high-paying jobs by way of a Fab Lab
Now major institutions are deepening their investment in STEAM by bringing the latest high-tech equipment together with a creative studio environment. The Columbus College of Art and Design's new $300,000 "Fab Lab" features state-of-the-art 3D printers, large-scale plotters, computer-driven laser and vinyl cutters and a computer numerical controlled (CNC) milling machine.
The $300,000 donor gift was originally intended to provide tools for Industrial Design students, but Tom Gattis, Dean of the School of Design Arts, had a broader vision that would benefit more college majors. Gattis says the in-house studio provides virtually unlimited capacity for students to bring ideas to fruition.
"Having these (hands-on) skills is extremely important to talk with vendors to ensure the integrity of their solutions," Gattis says, adding that many Industrial Design graduates are placed in design firms or corporations where vendors will likely produce the final product. And while the students don't generally operate the machines, they perform all the necessary design work on software, including three-dimensional drafting.
"Fashion design students used rapid prototyping and the laser cutter to make enhancements of garments for the annual senior fashion show," says Gattis. "Watching the show, I was thinking, 'that was in the Fab Lab just a week ago.'"
A little investment, a lot of creative possibility
With the falling price of 3D printing technology, this kind of creative technology is more accessible than ever. MakerGear LLC of Beachwood sells assembled desktop 3D printers for $1,775. Founder Rick Pollack says he regularly sells to schools and colleges. Art projects for the printers can range from vases to jewelry, he says.

With affordable 3D printers and related technology, adds Pollack, artists can easily jump into the world of entrepreneurship with a little training.

"A guy can buy a (CNC router) for $16,000 and start making furniture," says Pollack. "Capital is not a constraint -- it's knowledge. If you have the talent and skills, you can do this kind of stuff."

The printers can produce prototypes as well, allowing artists to expand an individual design into a product line.
A renaissance in Crawford County
Devin Bailey is one of these artists. She used a 3D printer to create prototypes of steel artwork that evolved into something much larger than full-scale sculpture.

For Bailey, an extra-credit industrial technology class at Crestline High School, located 65 miles north of Columbus, turned into a renaissance. 
Crestline's Industrial Technology Instructor Keith Strickler routinely integrates art into his class. But when the school board approached him about decorating plain circles on steel trusses in the newly opened high school, it presented a formidable challenge. Fortunately, one of his students was up to that challenge and then some.
Bailey dove into the project, says Strickler, writing all the CNC programming code and shooting files back and forth with partner and local fabrication shop Mosier Industrial Services Inc. The facility produced the final five-layer steel products, including a depiction of the school mascot bulldog, on a CNC plasma cutter as the class looked on.
"It would have cost us thousands of dollars to have an engineer do the design work," says Strickler. "Devin was able to do it with the other students and the Mosier engineer to pull it all off." He adds that she has since done hangar design projects for the local Air National Guard base to help raise money for families of airmen.
The Crawford County senior previously intended to become a college zoology major until she spent much of the school year designing the three-dimensional steel artwork. Bailey now plans to attend North Central State College in the fall to study mechanical engineering technology.
"I am a very artistic person," says Bailey, "but I can't draw to save my life. I have great ideas but I can't get them out. The computer gave me the outlet to express myself." She jokes about how she initially planned to pass on the project—an experience that ended up changing the course of her life. "Doing the math was my favorite part about it. I was designing my own thing. I wasn't just copying a picture."
Tom Prendergast is a Mansfield-based freelance journalist.

Photos courtesy of Columbus College of Art & Design, Dayton Regional STEM School and Crestline High School
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