Q&A with David Cole: Why We Need the "A" in STEAM

February 19, 2014
Erin Wilkey Oh Executive Editor, Education Marketing
Common Sense Education

CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Out-of-School Learning

The push to move from STEM to STEAM continues to be a hot topic. Educators, policymakers, and industry leaders want to make sure kids learn the skills they need to be competitive in the global workforce. Most everyone agrees that exposure to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) is essential. But why add the "A" for art and design into the mix? STEM-to-STEAM advocates argue that art and design skills are necessary to foster the kind of creative thinking and innovation that make revolutionary ideas like the iPhone possible.

David Cole, a San Francisco Bay Area educator and curriculum developer, is currently helping create a STEAM curriculum that combines traditional STEM skills with artistic practices. "Paper Circuitry and 21c Notebooking" is a collaboration between Cole, of CV2; Jennifer Dick, of the arts non-profit NEXMAP; the National Writing Project's Educator Innovator Network; and artist-engineer Jie Qi, a doctoral candidate at the MIT Media Lab. 

Cole was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and share his thoughts on the importance of shifting our focus from STEM to STEAM. The following is an excerpt from our email Q&A.

Q: Why add the "A" to STEM? What does art and design bring to STEM fields? 
A: Art and design can make the STEM disciplines more accessible. It's not a dumbing down of the science or the math; it's introducing the subjects in an applied context, which may be motivational for some learners. There's also an angle that's about creativity and innovation. This kind of language appears in H.Res.51 from the House of Representatives, a resolution to designate May as a STEM-to-STEAM month: "..Whereas...artists and designers can effectively communicate complex data and scientific information; the tools and methods of design offer new models for creative problem-solving and interdisciplinary partnerships in a changing world."

Q: Could you tell me a bit about your project "Paper Circuitry and 21c Notebooking?"
A: We’re looking at the literacies, techniques, and stories that come about when paper meets electronics; think of assembling surface mount components inside a notebook. It’s a writing-meets-making project. Jie's circuit stickers are remarkable; she's exploring electronics in artful, powerful ways. Paper circuitry introduces a functional aspect, a systems component, and a very strong element of artistic expression into the format of the notebook. The routines and rituals that go with the use of a journal or a notebook are centuries old. And circuitry in general and the idea of connected learning is reshaping how we relate to each other and to the world. I think the collaboration with Jen, Jie, and Educator Innovator is about some of these things.

Q: This project is grounded in real-world, hands-on learning. Do you think online or digital spaces have a place in the "maker" movement?
A: Yes, a big place. I think of three words: community, collaboration, and data. When we consider our networks and how our online lives are organized, these connections offer powerful ways to explore ideas, get feedback, learn new things. And just as the electric company can put a smart meter in your house, it's not a stretch anymore to think you can create a Wi-Fi-connected project and have your own relationship to the world through that work and the connections it creates. 

Q: What advice do you have for teachers interested in bringing art and design into more traditional STEM classrooms?
A: Find generous people in the art and design world who appreciate your subject matter and bring them into your classroom; connect with the humanities and art classes in your building; work your master schedule to get blocks of time to explore what happens next; it's an old puzzle with integrated curriculum and project-based, inquiry-driven work: making time to synthesize multiple perspectives. Compare the list of practices in the Next Generation Science Standards with the Studio Habits of Mind. In many ways those lists are complementary.

Q: Off the top of your head, are there any apps, games, or websites that could support STEAM learning?
A: There's amazing potential in the art and the systems behind gameplay and the apps that are now available. I want to get a copy of SimCityEDU and see what that's like, but I’m not getting around to it. I’m too busy messing around with notebooks.

David Cole has worked at the intersection of education, publishing, and technology for 15+ years, much of that time in and around Pearson PLC -- first as an employee, then as an independent consultant. A former English teacher, he’s worked on content management systems, mobile tools, and collaboration platforms for classrooms and professional development networks, digital media projects of all kinds, after-school programs, museum programs, STEM2STEAM projects, internships and service learning, public-private partnerships, and teacher training. Lately he’s been hacking notebooks and exploring possibilities for paper and electronics in the classroom.


Carol Baker Roux
Classroom teacher
Sanford Junior High School (Sanford, ME)

As a teacher in the arts, I pretty much stopped reading after this statement: "It's not a dumbing down of the science or the math; it's introducing the subjects in an applied context, which may be motivational for some learners. " Why would there be an assumption that incorporating the arts would dumb down any subject?

Erin Wilkey Oh
Common Sense Education

Hi, Carol. We totally agree! There shouldn't be that assumption. Sadly, we hear from many educators, like yourself, who have to defend the need for arts education in schools. As more and more resources funnel into ELA and math, the "elective" subjects can get pushed aside. David and other STEM-to-STEAM advocates are trying to raise awareness of the critical importance of art and design skills. Thanks for your comment!

Donald Peters
Classroom teacher
N.F. Woods Advanced Technology and Arts Center

and to Carol, I say you should have kept reading... 'Compare the list of practices in the Next Generation Science Standards with the Studio Habits of Mind. In many ways those lists are complementary.'

The Studio Habits of Mind is one of the greatest things to happen to Art Education and to see a science teacher wanting to incorporate them is gives me hope.

Nettrice Gaskins
Research artist
Atlanta, GA

There are many artists who incorporate STEM concepts in their work. John Coltrane composed the song "Giant Steps" based on Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Romare Bearden got his B.S. in Mathematics and used math principles when creating his collage art. My goal as a researcher, educator and artist is to bring to the forefront artists from communities that are generally underrepresented in STEM and Art to create a new model fo STEAM based on culturally situated arts-based learning.

Matthew Craig
Technology coordinator
Normal Park Museum Magnet School
Chattanooga, TN

Initially, I was inclined to agree with the STEAM movement. Then I remembered: "Technology" describes an artistic process. Checking my laptop's dictionary, I find: "ORIGIN early 17th cent.: from Greek tekhnologia ‘systematic treatment,’ from tekhnē ‘art, craft' " Technology is not always an artifact or tool, as it has been recently pigeonholed. Technology describes a creative process through which we translate an idea into physical reality. I understand calling out Art as an important (and undersold) part of Technology, I'm just concerned it's redundant and continues the silo-ing of these disciplines.