Most of us have heard of the STEM focus in education the last few years – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math focused curriculum that is geared to produce future workers who are globally competitive. But there’s a new kid in town: enter STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math.

STEM has long been viewed as a way to discover and engage with the world via the sciences and mathematics by developing critical thinking, problem solving, evaluating evidence and making sense of information and the like. But the Arts are gaining ground and recognition among longtime naysayers for their contribution to not only these very same skills, but also as a valuable tool in recognizing the interconnectedness in all areas of knowledge, interpreting the sciences and mathematics, and as a means of communication.

Integrating the Arts into STEM to create STEAM also provides contextual learning to help students gain frameworks and adaptable structures for all learning, past, present, and future. And it’s important to acknowledge that the “A” in STEAM is a broad spectrum of Arts, going beyond just fine art and aesthetics to include Language Arts, Social Studies, Physical Arts, and more. Perhaps even more critical is to recognize the parallels between the scientific process and the artistic process:

With all the content areas in STEAM education, the world of opera is perfectly poised to roll up its sleeves and dig in. As an art form that combines all other art forms, requiring engineers and skilled technicians, the sciences and math abounds behind the curtain. But even more importantly, the artistic process and thinking skills used in the day-to-day life of opera makes STEAM a way of (opera) life. It’s no wonder Opera Carolina was so eager to dive in and explore STEAM at Ashley Park PreK-8 Academy.

#STEAMSaturdays at Ashley Park

What happens when an innovative community business and resource–OrthoCarolina– is passionate about the work Opera Carolina and another of its funding recipients, Digi-Bridge, is providing the community? An introduction is made and, much like a great date, the sparks fly and a partnership is born. Digi-Bridge, a Charlotte-based organization dedicated to cultivating well-equipped 21st-Century learners, offers courses outside of the traditional school day, consulting for digital classroom designs, and advocates for closing the digital divide among learners. But the program that intrigued funder OrthoCarolina and Opera Carolina is the #STEAMSaturday residency program at Ashley Park PreK-8 Academy. The interest and excitement went so far as to create a partnership between Digi-Bridge and Opera Carolina, having the Opera help provide the “A” in STEAM.

Here’s a quick glance at what #STEAMSaturdays entails:

  • 5 week residency program on select Saturdays at Ashley Park Academy.
  • Students in 3-5th grade and 8th grade are eligible to attend.
  • Class begins at 9:00 a.m. and students start their day with full bellies as breakfast is provided.
  • Since January #STEAMSaturdays has focused on the Arts and careers in the Arts.
  • Students explored what it takes to be an advertising agent, photojournalist, architect and more.
  • Each weekly lesson includes an experiment an all materials required to participate such as designing a home, an airline’s logo or providing photos for a newsstory. All projects relate to the Arts career or subject they studied that day.

Where/how does opera come in to play?

Rather than creating an opera or piece of artwork, Opera Carolina’s partnership integrates arts-based thinking in the STEM subjects being explored. With the Arts Education philosophy that the Arts provide an excellent mode of learning and discovery— rather than just something (the Arts) to learn about—Opera Carolina seeks to use opera and its related arts as a vehicle to drive toward an understanding by providing multiple means of communication.

Opera Carolina’s #STEAMSaturday Residency Objectives:

• Provide assistance in using the Arts as a learning mode, particularly in scaffolding* concepts and ideas;

• Provide assistance in using the Arts as a communication tool, particularly in communicating understanding and learnings, both among scholars and instructors.

How is this made possible? By placing artists in the learning environment. These artists, referred to as Partner Artists, are charged with exploring and discovering each Saturday’s lesson alongside the students and instructors, and helping serve as an artistic conscience, of sorts. Rather than leading the class, the Partner Artists float among the students and help infuse an Arts perspective into conversations, explanations, and projects. They also help the lead instructor identify opportunities to use the Arts to demonstrate, explain, and clarify concepts and have students demonstrate understandings through arts-based thinking.

For example, in a lesson that explores rocket propulsion, a key concept is “variable” (a factor in an experiment that changes while the others stay constant). While students are provided a traditional definition, the Partner Artist will also help facilitate scaffolding of the concept through artistic means. This could look like having students create a visual representation of the concept of variable, or a physical representation. See the example below:

Hint: what changes in the set of images you see?


*The answer can be found at the end of the article.

Through these arts-based understandings, students are provided ways to synthesize knowledge through a different set of intelligence (kinesthetic, visual, aural, etc.). When multiple intelligences are activated in the classroom, learning comes alive and reaches a new level of efficacy.

*Scaffolding: instructional techniques to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and greater independence in the learning process. (www.edglossary.org)

What’s next?

first series of Saturdays at Ashley Park are wrapped up and the planning process of how to continue partnering and integrating the Arts into Digi-Bridge’s #STEAMSaturdays has begun. Ashley Park is not the only school receiving this Saturday residency program, though it is the only site Opera Carolina has currently partnered with. Another goal sprouting from this partnership is to continue to cultivate and train a core of Partner Artists and Teaching Artists who can be engaged in schools across the CMS district for future STEAM and residency opportunities, allowing Opera Carolina to deepen its instructional offerings and impact.

Opportunties abound – full STEAM ahead.

*Image answer: the apples are the constant and the variable in is how many bites are eaten out of each apple.