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Gabriel Tate

Gabriel Tate

From STEAM to STEM. The Lost A (Art) and Why It’s Important

Child with father making a masking tape map for Cubetto, the wooden robot who teaches kids coding. Programming for kids.

What a difference an ‘A’ makes. With funding for state education under unprecedented pressure on both sides of the Atlantic, the squeeze on so-called ‘fringe’ arts subjects has begun in earnest. Early specialisation is being encouraged and arts programmes are already being dropped from school curricula in order to focus resources on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects.

Nothing wrong with those, of course, but why not add Art to create STEAM? As acronyms go, admittedly, they’re a little misleading. STEM, as ‘a central part of something from which other parts can develop or grow, or which forms a support’, sounds a whole lot more permanent, constructive and downright valuable than STEAM, ‘the hot gas that is produced when water boils.’

The reality is a little different – but don’t take our word for it. Barack Obama was an unprecedented advocate for the arts in the White House, stating that: ‘In addition to giving our children the science and math skills they need to compete in the new global context, we should also encourage the ability to think creatively that comes from a meaningful arts education.’ His Committee on The Arts and Humanities made several strong recommendations to this end.

Then there’s the first African-American astronaut Mae Jemison, who described the arts and sciences as ‘manifestations of the same thing… The arts and sciences are avatars of human creativity.’

We couldn’t agree more. As we’ll be exploring, the two can work together hand in hand, and there are certain educational toys that can help. Arts and crafts are just as central to children’s development as traditional STEM subjects. After all, they’ve laid the foundations for some of the world’s greatest polymaths and geniuses.

A Brief History Lesson

‘Where science ends, art begins,’ reckoned 19th-century photographer Charles Nègre, who was moved to switch from painting to studying the chemistry of photography, the physics of optics and the engineering behind the camera when he first set eyes on daguerreotypes. He could write a bit, too:

‘When the chemist has prepared the sheet, the artist directs the lens and the three torches of observation, feeling and reasoning guide the study of nature; photography invokes effects that make us dream, simple patterns excite us, powerful and bold silhouettes that surprise and frighten us.’

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Da Vinci Code

Anyone who regards science and the arts as mutually exclusive would do well to think of the example set by Leonardo Da Vinci. Inventor. Engineer. Mathematician. Botanist. Astronomer. Geologer. Anatomist. We could go on, but in essence the original Renaissance Man was a one-man STEAM engine who drafted prototypes for helicopters, parachutes and revolving bridges, and also found time to be the greatest artist of his age –The Last Supper, Mona Lisa, The Vitruvian Man, you know the score. While many of his scientific observations were never published, they show a mind open to everything.

Saints and Scientists

Leonardo wasn’t the first of the arts-and-science polymaths. Twelfth-century Benedictine Abbess St Hildegard of Bingen wrote poetry, songs and what many argue was the first morality play, Ordo Virtutum, while pioneering the study of natural history through her work in the abbey’s infirmary and herbal garden.

Nor was Da Vinci the last. In the 18th century, Mikhail Lomonosov wrote a hugely influential Russian grammar book, founded a factory that produced stained glass mosaics and discovered the law of Mass Conservation – a cornerstone of the study of chemical reactions. Later on came Samuel Morse, a prominent artist before he came up with the telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell, whose invention of the telephone was rooted in a musical game, and Samuel Beckett, an author vitally concerned with the nature of consciousness, perception and memory, whose works are much studied by neuroscientists keen to decipher how the brain works.

Apple iPhone, Mac computer, technology

The Digital Era

A 2011 study found that Nobel laureates in the sciences are 17 times likelier than the average scientist to be a painter, 12 times as likely to be a poet, and four times as likely to be a musician. So many success stories of science and industry, from Apple to Ford to Google, pivot around turning functional items into aesthetic must-haves by seamlessly blending technology and artistry.

So what does all this prove? Simply that both science and the arts should complement each other rather than be placed in artificial opposition.

The Age of STEAM

The subject has become such a hot potato in the US that a movement, spearheaded by academics and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RIST), was founded to build a curriculum incorporating all five STEAM subjects. The rollout has already begun: if you have time, visit Stem to Steam for more inspiring examples of STEAM in practice.

In 2012, RIST President John Maeda argued that:

‘Scientists and artists are extremely innovative – it’s just the way they work looks different. The great scientists have models all over their desks; they’re tinkering, playing, ripping things up. And the best artists aren’t sitting there just making; they’re reflecting, thinking, spending years on an idea. STEM to STEAM is a statement about how we believe that STEM will save the economy… People get excited because someone is showing how the arts can be part of the same pool of knowledge. And unless you can grow all at the same time, where will innovation come from?’

Even popular culture has taken note. is a vocal champion for the both arts and science, while in 2012, iconic PBS television series Sesame Street made the letter ‘A’ its unofficial letter of the year, actively incorporating the arts into its existing STEM focus. The centerpiece was Elmo: the Musical, in which the irresistible red muppet sang and danced his way to solving a range of mathematical and geometric problems.

Incidentally, PBS has long been a strong supporter of the arts in child education. Check out their treasure trove of ideas and support here.

In short, the will is there. But why the fuss?

Why It Matters

Dr Joan Bouza Koster’s book Growing Artists, first published in 1997 and now in its seventh edition, found that the arts are central to a child’s development, aiding intellectual growth, physical and emotional wellbeing, sensory perception, creativity and their sense of community. The arts are, in a sense, their first language.

1. Grades

Like it or not, tangible yardsticks are the obsession of governments around the world, without whose support STEAM is more likely to have the staying power of, er, steam. So we thought we’d start with some actual, empirical evidence that the arts can assist with exams. Fortunately, there’s plenty of it.

One pioneering 2002 study for the Arts Education Partnership, updated in 2010 to similar effect, found that students who received more arts education did better on standardised tests, improved their social skills and were more motivated than those who had reduced or no access.

Another, from 2006 and part of a pilot programme from the Guggenheim Museum, found evidence that artists working in schools helped those students to perform better on six different categories of literacy and critical thinking than the children with whom they didn’t work.

And a third study, from 2011, backed by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities and centred on the Maryland school system, found that skills learnt in the visual arts could help with reading, while those learning music could turn the same skills to mathematics.

Girl painting indoors


2. Careers

The benefits don’t stop when children leave education. Arts specialists are just as well-placed as science whizzkids to find gainful employment. Even tech employers are looking for candidates with arts and humanities qualifications. IBM, for example, uses a quota system to ensure a balance when they recruit graduates, while in 2011 Google’s VP for consumer products claimed that developing user interfaces required empathy and observational skills just as much as pure technological ability. She also declared that: ‘We will be hiring about 6,000 people this year – and probably 4,000 to 5,000 from the humanities or liberal arts.’

3. Personal Development

There are two sides to every story. Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland’s 2007 study for Harvard’s Project Zero found little academic improvement in maths, science and reading among arts students at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yet, they argued, that shouldn’t necessarily matter. Given that aptitude in the arts is intrinsically harder to measure than success in STEM subjects, should the arts not have innate and experiential value, away from their perceived impact on STEM subjects? Their conclusions suggest so:

‘Students who study the arts seriously are taught to see better, to envision, to persist, to be playful and learn from mistakes, to make critical judgments and justify such judgments.’

Harvard Emeritus Professor Dr Jerome Kagan concurred. ‘Art and music require the use of both schematic and procedural knowledge and, therefore, amplify a child’s understanding of self and the world,’ he said at the John Hopkins Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit in 2009.

A four-year study from 2009, meanwhile, found that arts education could even rewire the brain, with music students more able to transfer their motor skills. Another discovered that those practicing a specific art form over a period of time benefitted from better attention spans and even improved fluid IQ scores.

And let’s not forget the educators themselves. One study of students at 12 New York, Connecticut, Virginia and South Carolina schools found that educators at schools emphasising arts education enjoyed greater job satisfaction, were more interested in their work and more likely to be innovative. And happier educators generally mean happier kids.

Family with mother and two daughters playing with Cubetto, the wooden robot who teaches kids to code. Educational toys, STEM toys for toddlers

4. Community

‘No man is an island,’ as John Donne, a poet not above the odd scientific flight of fancy himself, famously observed. So what are the benefits of arts and crafts in education to wider society?

A 2005 RAND Corporation study found that access to arts education helped level the playing field between children from lower-income families and better-off kids who might be more regularly exposed to the arts. Evidence of the positive effect of arts education on delinquency, truancy and dropout rates has been gathered from Florida to Missouri and beyond – great for the kids themselves, and no bad thing for the local community.

What You Can Do

In a sense, this is the easy bit. Helping children with arts and crafts just requires the basics, along with a little imagination and perhaps some STEM toys for toddlers. Above all, personal development shouldn’t feel like a competition. So what are the best educational tools for toddlers?

In the Nursery and the Classroom

What are science and the arts about, if not exercising and testing the limits of our imaginations? At the Wolf Trap Institute in Virginia, artists have been collaborating with educators and working with kids on curriculums that, for example, combine dance with maths. In Rhode Island, MIT researcher Jie Qui introduced students to paper-based electronics as part of her master’s thesis exploring the use of technology in expressive art. Educators at London’s Orchard Primary School use educational toys including Cubetto to introduce basic programming and coding to Key Stage 1 children. There are scores of examples and ideas of the arts and toddler learning systems in nurseries and childcare to be found here.

At Home

At Primo Toys, we believe that playtime should be a shared experience. It’s important for children to learn the value of teamwork – tricky tasks are best accomplished by more than one person – and that person can just as easily be a parent or guardian as an educator. As part of a 2012 Demos study, Geethika Jayatilaka found there were significant benefits for both parents and children in playing together as part of the UK’s Parents as Partners project. This can be as simple as asking your child to describe a picture they’re drawing to asking about their methods – how they created this colour, or folded the paper like that. Cubetto can help, providing both a fun and productive way to play, learn and create together.

1. Attention all astronauts – Cubetto has a mission for you. With a few craft basics (scissors, yoghurt pots, masking tape, tissue paper), you can build a jetpack and send the robot into space…

2. Cubetto can become Tintoretto, simply by attaching some crayons, pencils or felt tips then programming the toy to draw circles, squares… anything you like!

3. For home educators, too, Cubetto offers a wealth of opportunities for free exploration, experimentation and learning skills including spatial awareness and sharing through play. London mum Victoria Casey reckons it’s ‘brilliant.’

4. Cubetto is great for kids with special needs, too. For ideas and inspiration, take a look at all our DIY resources and see how ASD students, a SEN class and visually impaired children got on with the coding toy.

Who knows? Your child could be a budding Leonardo or Morse. The most important thing, though, is to have fun doing it. Let us know how you get on over on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and happy playing!

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