Happy National STEM/STEAM Day!
November 8th is National STEM/STEAM Day in the USA. STEM stands for Science Technology Engineering Mathematics while STEAM adds an A for the Arts.
Some educators overlook the importance of that A. After all, the high-paying jobs of the future are in the STEM fields, while all but a handful of artists, musicians, and writers need to work at a day job to pay the rent. If a school district is struggling for money, they usually cut the arts first.
This happened in my nieces’ school district. When Niece #1 was in fourth grade, all of the children in her class were taught how to play the violin. In fifth grade, they could take up a musical instrument of their choice. Niece #1 chose the flute.
Niece #2 attended the same elementary school where Niece #1 learned to play the violin and then the flute, but she is four years younger than her sister. By the time she was in the fourth grade, the violin program had been cut. The school district continues to offer instrumental music, but it starts in middle school now, not in fifth grade. Fortunately for Niece #2, we are a musical family, and my mom arranged for her to take piano and guitar lessons. But what about the kids who don’t come from musical families? What about the kids who don’t have a parent or extended family member who can afford to pay for music lessons?
The benefits of music education are well documented, as you can read here: http://www.childrensmusicworkshop.com/advocacy/benefits/. Music education enhances brain development. It promotes self-discipline. It has even been shown to improve a child’s academic achievement.
Amy Chua, the notorious author of the book Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother, insisted that her daughters learn to play the piano and the violin (although not other musical instruments). The girls were not allowed to be in a school play. They weren’t even allowed to complain about not being in a school play! Children who participate in a school play or musical don’t win prizes or gold medals for doing so, making them a waste of time according to Chua.
Few American parents or educators are as fanatical as Amy Chua, but in the push for STEM education and those eventual high-paying jobs, they often overlook the benefits of school plays and musicals. They may not realize the many ways teachers can use a school play or musical to enhance math and science skills.
First of all, memorizing lines in a script exercises the child’s brain. The child also has to pay attention to what the other kids in the cast are saying and doing, which means the child will most likely memorize a lot more than her/his own lines.
If the play or musical has a math or science theme, the child will learn scientific language and terminology. Kids who are bored reading science textbooks may become interested if the same information about recycling, space exploration, or robots is presented in story form. Of course, some aspects of the play or musical will probably be purely imaginary. For example, my book Time Trip: A Dinosaur Musical includes talking dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and crocodiles as well as other flights of fancy. But this can lead to lessons on how to use research skills to distinguish science from science fiction.
The behind-the-scenes work that goes into a school play or musical also offers opportunities for kids to learn about science, engineering, and technology. A future engineer might enjoy building sets for the stage. Older kids can learn how to work the lighting and sound systems. They might even be able to use computers to make special effects. If this is not possible because the students are too young or the school doesn’t have the right equipment, the kids can still learn how show business professionals use science and technology to make movies, TV programs, and stage shows.
What about math? Kids who help with scenery and costumes will need to use real-life math skills, especially measurement. A backdrop has to be the right size. Costumes have to fit. Kids can also use math for selling tickets, figuring out how many programs to print, or making a graph showing the best way to set up chairs for the audience.
STEM education is great. STEAM education is even better!