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STEAM Engine: How KCAD Champions Creativity in the Classroom

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Portfolio magazine. Read the complete issue here

When President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law this past December, the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)-focused philosophy that has guided American education for years officially gave way to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math)— a pedagogy that emphasizes the value of incorporating creativity in the classroom. 

Amendment language in the federal education bill, the successor to No Child Left Behind, speaks directly to the importance of art as a vehicle through which a more advanced understanding of the STEM subjects can be reached. Developed with support from a growing Congressional STEAM Caucus, this language stands as the first clear federal policy that supports STEAM education.

But before it ever reached Capitol Hill, STEAM advocacy flourished thanks in part to educators like Dr. Cindy Todd, Chair of KCAD’s Art Education program. Dr. Todd, who is also a past president of the Michigan Art Education Association and currently serves as the Vice President Elect of the National Art Education Association’s Western Region, has a long history of advocating at a national level for the same arts-centered teaching philosophy she’s instilled in her Art Education students.

“Together, science, technology, engineering, arts, and math make a very well-rounded student,” says Dr. Todd. “I think the STEAM philosophy is a much more holistic approach that engages students with different learning styles.”

Art Education professor Donna St. JohnArt Education Associate Professor Donna St. John (center) will lead efforts to bring STEAM learning experiences to K-12 students through KCAD’s ArtPrize 2016 Education Days programming. Students of all ages will be guided through a lesson exploring the intersection of STEAM knowledge fields in Leonardo da Vinci‘s work before collaborating to create a public art installation informed by each of those fields.

With creative-centric positions becoming increasingly prevalent in the job market, students without an early education in art and design will be left behind the curve. Rather than teaching students to merely retain knowledge to be regurgitated later, art and design education promotes the centers in the brain that process information critically instead of simply memorizing it. As the STEAM movement progresses, KCAD will continue to integrate that educational philosophy into its Art Education curriculum, as well as give students the tools to advocate for a pedagogy that values creativity.

“Art is not an extracurricular activity; it’s a full-on subject that needs to be taught,” says Dr. Todd. “Many of our Art Education students will become the single art teacher in a school, so they have to be able to articulate why the arts are important.”

The college’s advocacy of STEAM philosophy can also be seen in the Medical Illustration program, which began four years ago in collaboration with Michigan State University’s (MSU’s) College of Human Medicine. Students in the program work closely with medical professionals to articulate complex medical information through striking visuals.

Medical Illustration student workingA Medical Illustration student working on a digital illustration.

Students’ thorough understanding of the human body, gained through upper-level medical-related courses taken at MSU, combined with their visual communication skills, makes them indispensable to the medical profession. The program’s interdisciplinary nature serves as a microcosm of the larger STEM to STEAM movement. 

“This program is KCAD’s response to the medical community’s heightened understanding of the value of art in conveying important medical data,” says Interim Dean of the College Ron Riksen. “The doctors at MSU are thrilled and excited to have this relationship with us, and the feeling is mutual.”

This summer, KCAD’s Continuing Studies program is infusing STEAM principles into its Youth course offerings. Young learners will have the opportunity to experience how creativity and science overlap in courses like Backyard Botany, in which participants explore the anatomy of plants and animals while learning how to draw them, or Spectacular Science Experiments with Art, which gives participants the chance to design and build a functional kite or engineer a colorful paper roller coaster.