The Blurry Line Between STEM and STEAM--and Beyond

The lovely Serena Guerra, artist on
The Candy Crimes of the Confectioneer
Yes, we put the M in STEM. It's catchy, isn't it? But what it doesn't say is that I arted the crap out of Solution Squad. It isn't just STEM. It's STEAM. Creating superheroes with colorful costumes that personify math concepts is pretty darned artsy. I even tessellated the Solution Squad logo and used it as a Photoshop mask to make a design that looked cool on clothing (see photo at right).

If that ain't art, I don't know what is. The only reason it doesn't say, "We put the M in STEAM" is because it doesn't rhyme.

And I'll tell you a secret. It isn't just STEAM either. This incredible divide we've invented, and I'll take credit or blame for helping it along, is artificial. When I made up all the names from Equality's family and  the character herself, I made them palindromes: Words that spell the same way backward and forward. Hannah Harrah? Anyone? That's right, I put some English/language arts in that math comic book.

Yes, there is a focus today on the STEM subjects because America is falling behind, blah, blah, blah. The reason the United States is falling behind in technology is because we don't pay anyone. I have half a dozen friends and relatives who are currently IT contractors. They lost their full-time jobs with benefits only to be hired (and in some cases, re-hired) as independent contractors with no right to company-sponsored health insurance. Putting emphasis on the STEM /STEAM fields isn't going to do squat to address corporate greed. And as long as they can pay workers in China 15 cents an hour to make iPhones, all the training in the world isn't going to do us any good.

When I really put my mind to making my math problem solving class appealing to all the students, the sheer number of applications of technology to make art were mind-boggling. I had kids making stop-motion animation. I had them analyzing inflation through Back to the Future. I had them build and help me run two Kickstarters and create merchandise for comic book heroes. Every application that they enjoyed the most involved the arts. And that's not just aesthetics, okay? That's language. How to describe a Kickstarter pledge level to entice people to give you their hard-earned money is persuasive writing, for crying out loud. Understanding sales tax in different states was a part of that too. It's social studies!

I was in an inservice two years ago where some clever influencer-type added reading to the mix, to make it STREAM. The presenter, who was 12 (anyone under 30 looks 12 to me), wisely said, "Add one more letter or so and we're just back to school, I guess." I applauded.

I feel that we are doing a disservice to our students by simply cloaking some of our schools in STEAM or STEAM. Of course those fields are important. I preached the word of mathematics for 32 years. But math without context is useless, and the other subjects we study provide that context. Whenever I hear someone in social studies start to put math down or frame it as the subject that no one is good at, I always have to point out that without algebra we don't have the Electoral College or proportional representation in Congress. And conversely, when I hear someone say, science is of the utmost importance to the detriment of the liberal arts, I have to point at Jurassic Park and say, without ethics, you get loose dinosaurs that breed despite your best efforts. So, yes, by all means, let's teach STEM or STEAM or even STREAM, but for crying out loud, let's know why we're doing it.

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