• by Paula Johnson, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2015 •

Paula JohnsonStudents are encouraged for at least 12 years by parents, teachers, and their community to learn all they can in order to build a fulfilling life for themselves. At the heart of the American public education system is the desire for all students to graduate from high school fully prepared for college and to begin a professional career.

When students come to the fork in the road between college and career, we want them “armed and fully loaded” with the requisite knowledge and skills for both. The key question now is how do we create an educational community of practice that welcomes every learner and instills the qualities that will provide a strong foundation for further studies and employment?

Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) have been in the spotlight for some time. In his 2011 state of the union address, President Obama pledged the addition of 100,000 new STEM teachers. He also expressed the desire for the United States to reclaim its leadership in the world with the highest proportion of college graduates by the end of the decade.

Whether you live in a state that has adopted the Common Core standards or one that is paving its own path, the United States continues to focus on building a community of professionals that can uphold and renew our STEM capability. It seems that with the amount of attention focused on this issue, we would have arrived at a solution to that key question. There is a growing community of educators who are forcing STEM supporters to rethink how we deliver instruction to 21st century learners – by returning to the arts.


While each state continues to determine again what knowledge is crucial to students during their secondary years, a not-so-quiet revolution is taking place that is demanding the attention of STEM educators. There is a movement underway to bring innovation to STEM education through the integration of the arts: STEM + Arts = STEAM.

The common thread of support by STEAM advocates is that the economic prosperity of the United States rests heavily on the incorporation of the arts into STEM education as a means of making stronger connections for all learners.

Championed by the Rhode Island School of Design, STEAM education has the potential to transform the 21st century economy just as science and technology did for the 20th century. There is an untapped source of potential innovation in STEM-related fields by students who have inclinations toward visual arts, music, dance and drama.

Imagine a child who learned fractions by incorporating the foundations of musical notes. Or, fancy the student who learns about force of motion through interpretive dance. They are given the tools and opportunity to “see” the big picture, all of its elements, and how they work together as a whole!

Are They Ready?

I was recently asked to join a live radio broadcast discussion surrounding STEM education and Algebra II as a high school requirement. Along with Laurie Posner, our director of civic engagement at IDRA, and the hosts, we engaged in a lively, hour-long discussion on the role high school math plays in students’ future college and career pathways.

The phrase “college and career ready” ambiguously implies that high school standards, curricula, and instruction have prepared students for both. Unfortunately, the expectations of colleges and universities do not always include the so-called “soft skills” in high demand by industry that students should also master before entering the workforce.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2015 Job Outlook survey, the top attributes employers seek on a candidate’s resume include the following: leadership, ability to work in a team structure, written communication, problem-solving skills, and a strong work ethic. Though many would argue that STEM-related courses should solidify these attributes, the majority of classroom instruction remains traditional in its lecture-driven style.

Without teacher-student interaction during the learning process, students are not given space to develop the non-cognitive skills that the business sector is looking for. In many professions, what a candidate knows is not as critical as their ability to learn and adapt to new situations.

Changing the Equation

STEAM lesson delivery provides opportunities for students to negotiate their understanding of the content through a multitude of artistic mediums. Students collaborate with classmates to develop their unique interpretation of the standards being taught. There is a significant departure from the norm when planning a STEAM lesson. Both content objectives are treated as equals. This dual focus encourages learners to demonstrate core content information through an art form they also are studying.

Assessment is based on mastery of both standards. This form of instruction contains an increased amount of students’ written, verbal, and even physical expression enabling teachers to gain a broader sense of each learner’s understanding.

The nation has a vested interest in growing this generation of STEAM graduates and professionals. In order to keep (or some would say, reclaim) our position in the global economy, we must produce high school graduates ready to take on the world in a multitude of fields. Whether on campus or in occupation, all of our children deserve to be armed with the skills they need to embark on their journey toward successful careers and economic health. The problem (pun intended) is that we have to be open to changing the equation of how we go about the business of preparing students for life after high school.

Educators interested in exploring STEAM lessons and activities can find free multidisciplinary resources on sites such as EducationCloset.com, stemtosteam.org, and Edutopia.org.


Johnson, P. “STEAM Education for Every Child, Parts 1,” IDRA Classnotes Podcast (June 30, 2015).

Johnson, P. “STEAM Education for Every Child, Part 2,” IDRA Classnotes Podcast (July 16, 2015).

Jolly, A. “The Arts Effect: How STEM Becomes STEAM,” MiddleWeb blog interview of Ruth Catchen (June 23, 2014).

NACE. Job Outlook 2015 (Bethlehem, Penn.: National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2015).

Ward, R., & M. Wilson. “Crayons in Algebra Class?,” STEAMed (April 1, 2015) Page 9-13.

Paula Johnson, M.A. is an education associate in IDRA’s Department of Education Transformation and Innovation. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at paula.johnson@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]