Supporting the STEAM movement and advocating for policy change
Much of the modern world depends on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Widening the lens to add an “arts” element acknowledges the crucial role of communication, creative thinking and design skills in all of these domains and thus STEAM learning is born. Both student success and long-term provincial economic viability depend on the adoption of STEAM as a core priority in K-12 education. Readying our students with the necessary knowledge and skills not only prepares students for future education and careers, but also helps address gender and racial opportunity gaps and supports province-wide progress and innovation.
Kids Come First is working to elevate STEAM as a provincial priority in education. Our recommendations to bolster STEAM learning include:
- Adopt a provincial K-12 STEAM education strategy.
- Prioritize STEAM as a core priority in redesigning and updating provincial K-12 curriculum, specifically:
- Developing, implementing and supporting rigorous and clearly articulated province-wide standards for STEAM learning.
- Introducing the full STEAM continuum in the K-3 curriculum, particularly the often-missed areas of computer science and engineering.
- Increase recommended time allotments for math and science in elementary and junior high, with specific reference made to technology and engineering along with the cross-curricular connections with art.
- Require 30 level courses in both science and math to earn a high school diploma.
- Make computer science a core high school course, ensuring that every high school in Alberta offers appropriate computer science courses and requiring students to complete at least one computer science course to receive a high school diploma.
- Facilitate partnerships with postsecondary institutions and industry to bring STEAM specialists into the classroom to work alongside educators and students to provide content knowledge and increased exposure to STEAM career pathways.
- Establish a STEAM Learning Coach program to offer in-school professional development to provide mentoring, share best practices and promote transfer of STEAM theory to STEAM classroom practice.
- Provide dedicated funding for STEAM-specific professional development to support implementation of the new STEAM curriculum. These initiatives should be designed with a view to providing sustained engagement in STEAM professional learning.
- Build the STEAM teacher pipeline by supporting enhancement of STEAM-specific training for pre-service teachers in postsecondary education programs. Pre-service training should address both STEAM-specific pedagogy as well as STEAM content knowledge.
- Support development of quality instructional materials aligned with provincial K-12 STEAM curriculum.
- Establish and support a searchable database of STEAM unit plans and project materials that educators can adapt and use in the classroom.
Preparing for the future
A strong foundation in STEAM keeps opportunities open both for postsecondary education and careers. According to the non-profit organization Let’s Talk Science, an estimated 70 percent of top jobs require strong STEM skills. But the need for STEAM skills is not restricted to high level jobs. Many young people are unaware of the pivotal connection between skilled trades and STEAM skills. Yet the truth is that most skilled trades demand strong STEAM expertise.
While some argue that we cannot educate students for jobs that do not yet exist, STEAM learning provides a strong base of knowledge and skills that are highly relevant to the modern workplace. Already there are jobs in every field that call for people who are analytical, curious and able to make connections -- the very qualities that are nurtured in STEAM learning. While we may not know the specific requirements of future jobs, we know that unskilled jobs will increasingly be lost to automation and technology while new jobs created will depend on skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and data analysis that are central to STEAM learning.
Progress, innovation and economic growth
STEAM learning also has an important influence on our economy and culture of innovation. By fostering a culture that values STEAM knowledge and skills as well as creativity, our education system can act as a catalyst for innovation and economic prosperity. A STEAM-literate workforce has the skills and talents required to tackle the most difficult problems of our times in a variety of fields, from healthcare to energy. Like a domino effect, this innovation spurs economic diversification and fuels job growth.
The education system must ramp up STEAM skills for all high school graduates and also propel more students into postsecondary STEAM studies. Growth in STEAM sectors is generally outpacing the rest of the economy and it can be expected that the need for skilled STEAM workers will continue its upward trajectory. However, the proportion of students in postsecondary STEAM studies is flat. To meet the demand for a skilled STEAM workforce, it is critical that we arm students with STEAM knowledge and skills and ensure that they remain engaged throughout the K-12 continuum.
An engaged and informed citizenry
At the societal level, STEAM education offers considerable collective benefits as a population well-versed in scientific methods and innovation is better able to contribute to policymaking where science and technology plays an important role.
The need for a strong STEAM foundation is not limited to those pursuing advanced education in STEAM disciplines or STEAM careers. Beyond the question of employability, it is important to consider what knowledge and skills each citizen needs not just to survive, but to thrive. STEAM education provides many key tools necessary for citizens to participate in society and make informed decisions in their everyday lives.
Whether comparing healthcare options, formulating a retirement strategy or selecting a new furnace, STEAM literacy is crucial. Contrast these needs with the results from the OECD’s Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). This data shows that more than fifty percent of Albertan adults have inadequate numeracy skills and inadequate problem solving skills in a technology-rich environment. We need to reverse this trend and ensure that all students graduate with both the critical thinking skills and substantive scientific knowledge necessary to engage with social problems and make sense of policy debates. Not all students will choose the path of engineer or scientist, but all will be citizens.
Shrinking the opportunity gap
Increasing participation of underrepresented groups in STEAM, especially women and First Peoples, is of critical importance. Data from the Council of Canadian Academies shows that only slightly more than a quarter of STEM jobs are held by women. Significant numbers of underrepresented groups, including First Peoples are missing from STEAM labs and lecture halls as well as STEAM workplaces because they were not nurtured, identified or encouraged to pursue STEAM early in their education.
Incorporating STEAM into the early elementary curriculum will boost student engagement, particularly among girls, who have often self-selected out of STEAM subjects by the time they reach junior high. Designing STEAM learning that appeals to women and First Peoples will increase diversity and provide valuable knowledge and skills will help to close the opportunity gap and maximize the opportunities open to all students.
Increasing participation in STEAM both in postsecondary education and the workplace provides literacy, empowerment and economic advantage that can shape the world as well as everyday lives. Increased diversity also brings a broader set of experiences and perspectives that can enhance the development of scientific knowledge, with the potential to increase innovation and propel STEAM forward with the introduction of novel solutions that reflect the needs of a rapidly changing world.
Sowing STEAM seeds early and often
Research shows that early STEAM education supports not just long-term interest in these subjects, but also provides measurable benefit to students in terms of process skills, content knowledge and concept knowledge. Incorporating STEAM in the early years of education is also beneficial to students’ academic growth as well as for the development of critical thinking and reasoning skills.
In addition to establishing a strong foundation for later learning, early introduction of STEAM also provides all students with exposure and engagement, with equal opportunity to strive and thrive in STEAM areas. If STEAM is left to the later years, it is all too often seen as a domain solely for high academic achievers and/or schools with the necessary resources to offer more robust programming. STEAM is for all students, not just some students.
Supporting teachers, building capacity
With an updated provincial curriculum and an increased focus on STEAM comes an urgent need to support educators and ensure that both pre-service training and job-embedded professional development build teacher capacity in both content and pedagogy for STEAM learning experiences. Education leaders must also be recruited, prepared and supported in their role in monitoring and improving student learning in STEAM and working to close the opportunity gap for underrepresented groups.
Offering high-quality STEAM resources available in an accessible and intuitive database will go a long way in providing teachers with additional support for classroom activities as well as an opportunity to share best practices. A province-wide network of STEAM learning coaches can provide more personalized and place-specific mentoring opportunities as well as an increased level of consistency that addresses the historic disparities among schools and districts. Finally, creating links with industry to support partnership projects -- from classroom collaboration to educator fieldwork -- provides real-world STEAM expertise that supports teachers while also offering exposure to STEAM career pathways to the wider school community.