STEM v. ARTS?

A teacher is a practitioner of education. Because of this, their understanding and contextual information continues to grow. To nurture this growth, they must collaborate with colleagues, reflect on their experiences, and evaluate their progress based on the feedback from their collaborations and reflections.

One deep aspect of reflection that I engage with continually is the relevance of arts education. I have been troubled as an educator with the emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) based learning. Yes, STEM fields are in high demand and contribute significantly to a growing economy; yes, students are sure to get a job in those fields, if they are accomplished in their studies; yes, a student in the arts may not ever exceed a middle-class lifestyle. However, the importance of the arts is significant. As I noted in a class discussion the arts provide cultural capacity to our society.

Arts Provide Cultural Capacity
Arts Provide Cultural Capacity

The arts add value and meaning to the lives of every citizen, even if they are not directly engaged in arts activities. They are a forum for both creative expression and a dialectical exchange of ideas. I argue that it is not STEM that is of the highest value – the highest value in our society should be in creative capacity. To innovate and envision a better future will take citizens that can draw on their experiences in the arts and STEM to help build a better future. Further, as the arts become more blended with technology, for example Apple computers that are built with aesthetics in mind, it will be important to have students that are informed in both areas of practice.

However, the great tragedy in the U.S. education system is the limited resources that can support the schooling of the next generation. Something needs to be cut because funding is limited and the arts commonly suffer. STEM offers more financial promise and many families emphasize their importance because of this. Following my comments from an earlier discussion, if the U.S. would increase funding to the education system, allowing teachers to work with smaller teacher to student ratios and have increased teaching resources, there would likely be an improvement in the student output for national and international testing.

Limited U.S. resources
Limited U.S. resources

I teach Theatre Arts in a society and education sector that is increasingly focused on STEM fields. My challenge is to justify the relevance of a theatre arts education to the parents of my students. I indicate the parents, because I do not have a challenge to get buy in from students. Parents, as I have experienced, are commonly interested in the output of course work. Fortunately, Theatre Arts can be framed in terms of self-confidence, creativity, and communications. All three frameworks are valuable in any vocation and regardless of the theatre arts content that I do teach these three areas will always be present. Students will grow in their self-confidence, creativity, and communication skills because they participated in drama class. Rarely, when I have presented Theatre Arts in this framework, have I had a parent object to their child taking drama. But, I teach in a private school and families select the school, in part, because of the arts coursework.

A second reason for arts education is preservation. Arts audiences across the country have been getting older. Fewer and fewer youth attend theatre and other arts events every year. Arts organizations across the country are planning for youth engagement – and education is one area that the engagement is possible. The relevance of my subject remains and it does not negate the need for STEM learning either. The education system must be focused on a broad array of subjects so that students can find their passion.

In my disposition self-assessment, I remarked on my new initiative to focus on the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EALR) for Theatre Arts and track them in an excel database.

Use Standards
Use of EALR

One of the EALR asks for students to relate their work in theatre arts to another field (interested in WA state EALR, Click here). I can tailor lessons that address this EALR to STEM fields; I can possibly even collaborate with STEM teachers to do this. By integrating STEM into the creative practices of theatre students will gain an increased relevance for both subjects. It has been shown that students in the arts perform better on standardized tests, in part, because of their increased content connections that they gain from this type of activity.

As an educator, I need to avoid a STEM vs. Arts debate because that is not what education is about. Students should have the opportunity grow across a wide variety of subjects and allow each subject to inform others. These unique perspectives will help students in their academics and in their professional lives.

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