On a drizzly gray Saturday in early February, hundreds of educators from across the state braved the weather to attend a day-long STEAM conference at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. More than 250 teachers, librarians and educators from 15 of the state’s 18 school districts funneled through the entrance of NMA. Two Tesla cars flanked the entrance, their DeLorean-like doors spread high and bird-like, beckoning visitors to check them out and foreshadowing that something exciting was afoot.
Pretty much everyone has heard about STEM education. It’s an interdisciplinary approach to educating students. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and math. It’s been in practice in public and private institutions across the nation for long enough now for educators to see the effects. And to some of them, there was something missing in STEM—prompting the addition of an “A” for arts to the well-known acronym. The new letter sparked controversy in some education circles. But cheerleaders for STEAM say that by adding arts to STEM education, kids will be better and brighter in their fields and more ready for the workforce in a changing world, especially in Northern Nevada.
“Because of the presence of companies like Tesla and Switch and Apple and Google, we have made a really strong foundation to move Nevada toward a future that is really defined by innovation and technology,” said Marisa Cooper, museum spokesperson. “We want to make sure that as we’re moving in that direction, we’re remembering that the arts still a play a really vital role in being able to accomplish that. So, as we’re promoting STEM in our schools and STEM skills for our workforce, we want to make sure we’re doing it with the arts, which is why we’re promoting STEAM education.”
The focus of this year’s conference was to take a high-level view of the arts, looking to the past and asking who was doing this interdisciplinary practice before STEAM was a thing and teachers in classrooms all over began considering how to blend art and science education.
“We were really inspired by the practice of the traditional naturalists, like John James Audubon and John Muir—to think about the world and really be inspired by nature and really look and observe and think about what’s happening around you, then use the arts, use STEM to innovate in a new direction,” Cooper said.
The sold out, day-long conference was anchored by two keynote speakers and filled with hands-on workshops for the educators about everything from biomimicry to scientific illustration taught by a Centers for Disease Control illustrator to workshops using charcoal from wildfires to create botanical sketches of burning plants. The goal was to provide something tactile that teachers could leave with and implement in their classes on Monday.
Art is what lured a group of Battle Mountain Elementary School teachers to make the trek to Reno, but the team building activities focusing on blending natural sciences and creativity made their trip worth the mileage.
“Rural Nevada is a difficult place to bring culture and the arts to, but I think we try,” said Jonie Davenport.
Davenport has been an educator for 30 years. She and her Lander County peers said seeing separate subjects as overlapping was a huge takeaway they hope to pass on to their students.
“If you can tie the arts in with your other curriculum and end up with something you create, that’s actually our goal,” Davenport said. “A lot of things we’ve done today we had to work in teams, and … I think we would’ve gotten frustrated and quit with some of the projects we were doing if we weren’t part of a team.”
Davenport’s colleague Sandra Eslick has also taught for 30 years and wants to give her first-graders the space and ability to think broadly.
“Reading has so many patterns in it,” Eslick said. “So, I’m thinking if I can tie some reading patterns into what patterns there are in nature, maybe those kids that are really into nature will go, ’Oh! Reading’s got patterns like nature!’”
That’s what it’s about for Craig Rosen, community engagement and professional development administrator of the Desert Research Institute’s Science Alive outreach program, which works with teachers in the state year-round. He started this conference six years ago with teacher trainings and has watched it grow into the contemporary event.
“It’s those catches, those ways to get teachers excited about presenting the science through creative means,” Rosen said. “It also allows students who experience this the opportunity to really get their hands on it in ways they might not normally do through a book or a story or a lesson or lecture. To really get their hands on the science, and that’s where the creative piece comes in. Art is definitely an entry way into science. It’s a great tool to be able to bring the science to life.”
Those thinking-outside-the-box kids are who businesses in our state want in a future workforce. Chris Reilly—head of workforce development and education for lead conference sponsor Tesla—said that when designing a factory line from idea to reality, they’re vital.
“You need to be able to think about those skill sets differently and I think the arts really bring that balance right into play with engineering together,” Reilly said. “So, we see creativity to being essential to everything we do across the board. Tesla’s a very flat organization so you’re constantly working with different subject matter experts and different teams, and the arts can also teach you to deal with that ambiguity and get used to it and get excited about it.”
Putting the arts into the STEM mix is said to foster innovation and problem solving, but there are those that hope STEAM is not replacing traditional arts education. Pilar Biller, visual arts teacher at Damonte Ranch High School and the 2018 Nevada Teacher of the Year attended the conference to keep her finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the field she loves. She wants people to understand that arts and STEAM are not the same and should be utilized in different ways. She worries that by bringing some of the art components into STEAM, we’re not covering what arts education is all about.
“I value both of them,” Biller said. “It’s a concern that we are already struggling to maintain value for people and to say, ’We’ll add art to STEM, and it’ll be a thing.’ No, it’s not that thing. It is important, but we have to remember that arts education cannot be addressed through STEAM. It can’t. The arts can enhance STEM, but it’s not a replacement.”
The conversation will continue when the Nevada STEAM Conference hosts a symposium for educators later this month in Southern Nevada.