Quigley, C. F., & Herro, D. (2019). An educator´s guide to STEAM. Engaging students using real-world problems.

Quigley, C. F., & Herro, D. (2019).
An educator´s guide to STEAM. Engaging students using real-world problems.
New York: Teachers College Press. 153 pp.


I can clearly recall the day I really learned about the concept of the circle. This shape, which is apparently easy to draw, by hand or with a compass if you want greater accuracy, has much deeper implications if we pay it the attention it deserves and attempt to understand it to its full extent. One day, when I was a child, the art teacher was off ill and another teacher who was covering for him took a piece of chalk tied to a length of string and made us see clearly the full meaning of the circle. That teacher did not teach us to draw circles — we had already known how to do that for some time. Instead, he helped us touch the circle with our own hands, manipulate it, transfer it, look at it from different perspectives. The circle stopped being a simple drawing on the board or on paper and became a relevant concept, not just for art as a subject, but also for mathematics, as it gave meaning to the formulas we were studying and associated concepts like radius, diameter, and perimeter, for biology as we came to understand why many organisms are round, for physics in relation to the distribution of forces, and for aesthetics in relation to the perfection inherent to drawing itself. This simple transdisciplinary experience changed our perception of the circle and also of other content. It helped us understand that what different teachers talked about was not just relevant to their subjects, but could actually help us to better understand what we were studying in other apparently different subjects. Our perception of reality changed, becoming less narrow and clumsy and more interconnected and complete. That lesson made us a bit more intellectually mature.

 

This anecdote seems to me to illustrate one of the fundamental objectives of what is known as STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics), which is the central topic of the book reviewed here. In brief, STEAM education tries to confront the challenge of disconnected learning, both between different fields and in relation to the students’ social surroundings. It is a transdisciplinary method that sets out to teach áreas of content and the relationships between them in a way that makes it possible to transcend the content itself and develop a broader and deeper view of reality. The authors of this book are two university professors from Pittsburgh and Clemson (USA) who, in recent years, have carried out a significant amount of research into this topic, research that is the result of work closely linked to educational centres and considers education, assessment, and development tasks from STEAM programmes. This is apparent both in some of their previous publications and in this book, which has a clear descriptive and practical as well as argumentative character in the contributions to its objective.

 

The origin of STEAM is fairly recent and within it we find a clear intention to complement the STEM methodology by integrating the arts, understood in a broad sense. However, as the authors of the book note, it is not just a matter of adding a new concept, but also of giving this methodology a more social and humanistic character. The aim of including the arts is to achieve a more creative visión of potential solutions to social problems, which habitually involve scientific questions. It is also intended to help acquire an awareness that, as Eisner noted, problems do not always have a single solution, the solution is not known from the start, and it is not achieved by following strictly a set series of steps, but rather it is gradually created through the process of learning itself. Although, as with any recent concept, there is not a consensus on its definition between different authors, this book specifically focusses on the link between the sciences, arts, and humanities, as a strategy that avoids a  narrow vision of the sciences.

 

In addition to this, STEAM aims to give the concept a more inclusive carácter so that students who are often not motivated by scientific disciples, for example, girls and students from ethnic minorities, are more likely to be attracted to them, as STEM is often implemented as part of extracurricular activities with advanced teaching designs, which are not accessible to everyone and lead to very unequal representation in scientific professions.

 

It is worth noting that, while the result is novel, its various elements are common in the pedagogical innovations of recent years, such as problem-based learning, meaningful learning, or service-learning. Nonetheless, it contributes an aspect that to me seems very significant and that refers to teaching that is transdisciplinary and connected to reality. Methodologies like service-learning have often been criticised for focussing more on service than on learning. Accordingly, while STEAM is aimed at working on social problems in close interrelation with them, something that helps motivate students, it emphasises the classroom more than service, in other words, the intellectual dimension of the problem.

 

The first chapters of this book explain how this methodology works, and set out the key points for developing STEAM modules. However, this book is not a user manual with specific instructions, but rather a guide with reflections that, in many cases, are rooted in testimonies by teachers who are implementing these proposals. Ultimately, it is a book for teachers, which is closely linked to practice, as is often the case with pedagogic output from the USA, and it introduces constant allusions to classroom situations and reaches theoretical conclusions based on them to configure a specific teaching and learning model.

 

As Quigley and Herro explain, students face a situation designed by the teacher in which a problem is posed that they must solve through various tasks. These tasks combine different disciplines naturally and sometimes require excursions from the school and visits by experts in the different areas as a source of information and guidance. As these are real problems, it is not a case of giving a single response, as happens with teaching that focusses on content, but of suggesting reasoned options for solutions based on what has been studied in different subjects.

 

Along with the more practical chapters that define strategies for introducing this methodology in a school and ways of elaborating scenarios or of evaluating STEAM units, the authors make interesting reflections on the transversality and introduction of the arts. With regards to transversality, they distinguish it from multi- and interdisciplinarity owing to the ease with which the disciplines integrate in the proposed scenarios, occupying the same spaces to prompt new ideas. This transdisciplinarity stems precisely from the reality of the problems, which means that students work on the disciplines without thinking about distinctions between them. That is to say, they use the required knowledge and apply it to come up with a solution. This way of solving problems is what really makes it possible to discover the interconnections between differentdisciplines. In regards to the inclusion of the arts in STEAM, the authors warn that they cannot be considered solely in their aesthetic dimension or how they might contribute to beautifying products, but they also play a significant role in design, expressing emotions, and solving problems.

 

In essence, STEAM is a new example of active pedagogy with important contributions for in-class teaching that promotes more rounded, interconnected, and integrated learning in the context of the educational centre. That said, there are some aspects with regards to the proposal and to the book itself that should be considered.

 

First of all, reading between the lines in the text, it is not a matter of making all teaching STEAM, but of including this type of activity in the dynamic of the academic year, in a way that complements other activities. The time required to implement it, the resources that have to be mobilised, the timetabling flexibility it demands, among other things, make it difficult to combine with other activities, and so while it might reasonably have a place in the curriculum, this is a particular place alongside other tasks.

 

 

Secondly, STEAM supposes various problems that are inherent to its very nature. First of all, transdisciplinarity in content requires teaching staff that react appropriately to it, whether as a team of teachers from different disciplines who work together — something which is not always available — or a teacher who specialises in different subjects, which is difficult in higher years. Furthermore, there is a significant problem matching social needs with the school curriculum, as it is not always easy to find common elements that involve various subjects and make it possible to design STEAM scenarios.

 

 

Finally, with regards to this book, we should note that, while its degree of contextualisation is in many ways positive, it does focus on the US educational system, and so it is necessary to transfer its structures to the reader’s setting to understand its problems, procedures, and recommendations. Also, in the first chapters, a more thorough theoretical foundation of the principles underpinning STEAM would be welcome. When familiar with this methodology, it is easy to discern principles from Newman’s proposals regarding transdisciplinarity; from Dewey relating to experiential learning and contact with social problems; and from Gardner regarding multiple intelligences which are worked on through a range of tasks, and so a connection with these authors would help to shape a more solid proposal in this promising methodology.

 

Juan Luis Fuentes