Last episode I went through what I've seen, heard, and read about the curriculum at the new STEAM magnet school program opening this fall in District 281, the Robbinsdale Area Schools. I can only evaluate what's been presented, supplemented by some accounts of similar efforts elsewhere across the country. Maybe it will take firm shape and direction as it develops, a process that may take a few years. But so far, as I like to say, it's pretty thin soup.
Actually that's not quite fair. To continue the metaphor, yes, the district's recipe is short on actual Arts and Engineering. But there are other ingredients in the pot as I think this paragraph from the STEAM brochure makes clear:
The School of Engineering and Arts at Olson Elementary is designed for students who enjoy investigating the world around them, using creativity to solve problems and find solutions to challenges. Teachers use inquiry-based instruction to deliver excellent standards-based curriculum for a well-rounded education, grounded in discovery and hands-on learning. A focus on engineering and the arts allows students to understand the design process as it presents itself in all core subject areas, and to learn new ways to communicate their findings. The combination of an excellent STEM education combined with a rich arts education (STEAM) will help students develop into innovative leaders essential to a global society. Learn how this program will benefit your child!
Do you sense it, the touchy-feely approach underneath it all? We don't just complete tasks, we do Service Learning Projects. We don't engage customers or investors, we embrace Community Partnerships. We don't apply ourselves, we work Collaboratively!
This isn't the language of engineers. This isn't even the language of artists. It is the language of educators. It's what they know. It's what they were taught - by other educators and it's a clear handicap for the STEAM task at hand. I saw this first hand in college, when a visiting engineer from Medtronic taught a junior year electronics course. It was our first real confrontation with market realities, having to build projects that both worked and could be built for a specified price. It's when we first had to deal with the absence of 247.389 ohm resistors in the parts catalog. You found a way to make a standard 270 ohm resistor do the job, the cheaper 10% tolerance ones if possible. He talked a completely different game than we were used to, and at a much faster pace. He personified the old saw: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."
This is not to berate the teachers who will be teaching at Olson this fall. But the fact remains that they are teachers and think like teachers and, well, teach like teachers. Spending a few hours in professional development and visiting the Science Museum isn't going to change that. To be successful, I think the STEAM school needs a more hybrid faculty, both engineers and teachers. Even so, both must work within the limited mathematical and cognitive skill levels of the early grades. We understand this concept in the arts. We hire music majors not education majors to teach band and choir. STEAM must find a similar solution to succeed.
But to read the District's brochure and press clippings, they seem to think that happy thoughts and psycho-babble like the above will be enough. It depends on what the goal of STEAM really is.