Educating Innovators: Using Arts Education to Complement Core and STEM Curriculum

The 21st century has been a tough one for arts education. Between a heavier focus on core classes and tighter budgets, most schools lack the time or money to include regular lessons in art, dance, music and other mediums.

But arts education is starting to find a new niche through an unexpected source: STEM.

Schools nationwide, including in Utah, are starting to reintroduce arts education into the classroom, but in such a way as to tie into the core lessons already being taught. In incorporating arts education with core classes—and especially science, technology, engineering and math classes—teachers hope to give students a foundation not only to survive in the tech-heavy jobs of the present and future, but to thrive with creativity and innovation in those fields.

“Generally speaking, when you are looking for people in technology and encouraging technology, encouraging engineering, you’re looking for people that have those skills but can also create; you’re looking for innovators,” says Tami Pyfer, education advisor to Gov. Gary Herbert. “STEM is synonymous with innovation, so you want to make sure students have those experiences that help them to be creative, help them to be able to innovate, and arts education is it.”

Creating STEAM

Focus-STEAMphotoThe new push for including arts in schools is a reversal of years of heavier focus on core classes in an effort to raise standardized test scores, resulting in untested subjects dwindling in their shadow. Among the biggest culprits is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which was geared toward increasing school accountability and improving education for underprivileged students by penalizing schools that did not meet “adequate yearly progress” each year, as measured by standardized test scores.

Pyfer, who was working in the Logan City School District at the time of NCLB’s rollout, says the act had the side effect of making teachers so focused on teaching the material that would be tested that other subjects fell by the wayside.

“What we’ve seen, especially since No Child Left Behind, is that the increased emphasis on testing, and particularly high-stakes testing, has unfortunately taken time and resources in the classroom away from arts and put it toward subjects that are tested,” she says. “If you’re going to be labeled a ‘failing school’ if your reading and math scores aren’t to a certain level, then you can see how that might lead schools then to say, ‘Well, we’re going to stretch out our reading classes and throw in additional math classes, so maybe we’ll do music every other week.’ It really had this unfortunate effect on arts education in many places across the country.”

Herbert frequently includes the arts in his support for STEM, bringing the acronym to STEAM to include the idea that arts are as integral to education as math or science.

“STEM education is very important in Utah. We’re becoming the ‘Silicon Slopes’ and we are increasing students’ skills in science, technology, engineering and math. This is the key to preparing our youth for careers in these tech fields. But we cannot forget about the importance of the arts in education, which is why in Utah we talk about STEAM, not just STEM,” he says. “We need students who have technical skills but who are also creative and innovative. Providing experiences through art or music classes and other creative endeavors can better prepare our students today for the workforce needs of tomorrow.”

Integrating Disciplines

Despite support at the statewide level, Herbert—and Pyfer—are limited in their impact on what happens in schools; that task falls under the purview of the State Board of Education.

In the last Legislative session, however, Herbert did recommend giving $4 million in one-time funds to the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts Learning Program (BTSALP)—a proposal that was countered by the Legislature for $3 million in one-time funds and $2 million in ongoing funds. The BTSALP, which falls under the State Board of Education, gives funding to schools to bring in specialists in one of the fine arts. The specialists focus on instructional strategies and collaborate with teachers to incorporate core subjects with dance, music, theater or visual arts to create meaning and deeper learning through the combination of both subjects, says Cathy Jensen, BTSALP curriculum specialist, resulting in a more well-rounded student.

“Schools that catch the vision recognize that it is definitely not time lost—in fact, our studies have shown these schools that engage in this integrated learning, their students perform higher,” she says. “We also try to emphasize it’s not a block of time, but it’s another way to teach; it’s an instructional strategy, not a designated time.”

The program has been privately funded for years, but started receiving funding through the Legislature in 2008. It currently facilitates partnerships between specialists and more than 130 schools, and Jensen says it is expected to have reached roughly 300 schools by year’s end through these educational programs.

Sharee Jorgensen, district arts specialist for the Canyons School District, says the point of this integrated learning is to educate students not of the arts, but through the arts. Of the five schools in Jorgensen’s school district receiving a BTSALP grant, three have a dance specialist, while two have a theater specialist. In one lesson, a dance specialist worked with students learning about animals to make a spider web and move through it as a spider might.

“They’re using movement as a way of expression,” she says. “I think because the arts are so engaging naturally—it’s not a sit-and-listen kind of content—the kids retain more, they’re more focused, and they remember more what’s going on.”

At Bridger and Ellis Elementary Schools in Logan, Elsie Brundage has also found that to be true. “I think the instruction is more meaningful for them when they can do something hands-on,” she says.

Brundage has a degree in secondary art education, with an additional endorsement for elementary art. She spends the first half of the year at Ellis Elementary School and the second half at Bridger. In her third year of being a BTSALP grant teacher, she says, she’s starting to get a better feel for what projects help the students best—and how to balance her specialty with the classroom teachers’.

“We work side by side with classroom teachers. If the fourth grade is learning about symmetry or fossils, we come up with an art project together,” she says. “For me, the challenge is keeping it still a fine arts lesson and not getting sucked in [to the curriculum]—it’s that classroom teacher teaching that concept. I complement it.”

Another education trend that includes incorporated or complementary learning is a renewed interest in project-based learning, says Pyfer, where students have to pull knowledge from a variety of subjects or work with students who might have different academic strengths to complete the assignment.

“It’s a great approach, because students are learning better how to apply a scientific formula or to apply something you learn in math. When you apply knowledge, it starts to make sense. This is how you do it in the real world,” she says.

Valuing Soft Skills

Skills like the ability to work in a team, problem solving and communication are considered “soft skills,” rather than “hard skills” like competency or training in STEM subjects, says Mark Knold, senior and supervising economist with the Utah Department of Workforce Services. While teachers and employers will list hard skills as the most important things to get hired in STEM fields, those soft skills are still necessary for success, he says.

“It’s amazing to us when we get into an industry when we think it’s hard skills and hard skills only, soft skills can be a big problem for them. Soft skills are still very important in the whole system and structure,” he says.

Even in his own experience in hiring economists, a profession that falls in the STEM field, Knold says a lack of skills like being able to work or communicate well with others does more damage to a prospective employee’s chances of being hired than a deficit of their technical skills.

“They don’t get weeded out by their hard skills; they get weeded out by their soft skills,” he says.

Pyfer says many of those soft skills—communication, innovation, problem solving, creativity—come easily to children. Education needs to focus on fostering those skills, not stifling them, as it teaches technical lessons.

“They’re born creators, and we need to continue to encourage that in children in the school system, give them an opportunity for expression and opportunities to continue to create,” she says. “They’re going to be the next innovators, that’s all there is to it.”

Utah Business provides award-winning, in-depth journalism on the tech and entrepreneurial businesses at the forefront of our nation's economy. Our print and digital publications reach millions of executives across the state and our live and in-person events provide deep-dive access into the industries shaping our future.