Demand for higher education instruction in the subjects of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, may be surging because of the earning potential of those professions. However, local educational institutions are devoting more resources to arts programs—part of a growing STEAM curriculum—that encourage creative innovation.
Lone Star College-University Park is planning to open new instructional buildings to address the demand for science and art instruction, a result of the college system’s $485 million bond referendum that voters approved in 2014. The Center for Science and Innovation will open this fall, and an arts building will open on the campus in 2019.
At the secondary school level, Spring and Klein ISDs have adopted programs and tools that integrate arts and science instruction, such as KISD’s STEAM Express mobile learning center and SISD’s new Career Pathways program, which provide a range of options for students to get early experience in competitive fields.
“I think one of the reasons STEAM has gained much popularity over the last few years is because—for many educators—it has been almost an ‘Aha’ moment to realize that many of the projects labeled as STEM have always included components of artistic design,” said Mariam Manuel, executive director of the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp and an instructional assistant professor at the University of Houston.
Offering both art and STEM programs helps to prepare students for an increasingly competitive job market, according to instructors and administrators at LSC-University Park.
Developing the “soft” skills that are associated with the arts helps students excel in writing, creativity, presentation and building interpersonal relationships, Assistant Professor of Business Misty Sabol said.
“The ability to have empathy and the ability to develop relationships is the line in the sand between people who are sustainably successful and people who stagnate in their positions,” Sabol said.
LSC-University Park President Shah Ardalan said arts programs at the campus will expand dramatically in 2019, when the $23.7 million, 40,000-square-foot instructional arts building opens.
The arts building will include classroom space for visual art, music and theater as well as an auditorium that will seat 400 people.
The campus’s art department has grown each year since the campus opened in 2012, including expanding recent offerings in studio- and performance-based classes and introducing a piano lab that uses Apple software, Arts Department Chairwoman Kari Breitigam said. Programs at the new facility will be directed at building a foundation for students in traditional visual arts, music and drama.
“We’re working to create paths that allow a student to smoothly transition from the [arts programs] here into a four-year university,” Breitigam said.
Meanwhile, the college’s $15.4 million Center for Science and Innovation is scheduled to open this fall. The three-story, 50,000-square-foot building will feature 12 science labs, an astronomy observation deck, computer labs and a geology rock wall.
The campus also opened its Innovation Room in February under Sabol’s direction, presenting students with a space in which they can explore art, science and the areas in which the two fields overlap, Sabol said.
In its first year, the room—which cost about $100,000 to equip, using money from grants and the college’s annual budget—was fitted with 3-D scanning and printing technology, virtual reality equipment and other tools to facilitate experimentation in both technical and artistic fields.
“We’re an image graphics based society,” Breitigam said. “We need to hire people with visual skills.”
Carolyn Nichol, director of the Rice University Office of STEM Engagement, said the public has a misconception that STEM fields prioritize efficiency and utility over aesthetics.
“In fact, STEM is incredibly creative,” Nichol said. “STEM professionals must innovate newly designed solutions to problems and novel models to explain observations of our world. The arts lift students from these ruts into freer modes of thought.”
A 2015 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce examined the median annual wages of workers with college degrees between the ages of 25 and 59. The college majors most associated with high salaries are all STEM fields—such as chemical and petroleum engineering—which each command a mean annual wage above $100,000, according to the report.
In contrast, the median salary for arts majors with a bachelor’s degree, on average, was $49,000.
“Arts education can deepen someone’s understanding of the world and how things are made,” Nichol said. “Someone with a visual arts degree probably knows how to design creative products.”
Architecture, computer science, graphic design and animation are among the fields where a balance of arts and science experience is needed, Manuel said.
Educators said a study of the arts is also beneficial in preparing presentations, solving problems, writing resumes and interpersonal skills.
“Maybe the science will get them the job, but the art is what will let them keep the job,” Ardalan said.
Starting in high school
KISD Chief Learning Officer Jenny McGown said student interest in arts programs at the district has grown dramatically in recent years amid the national focus on STEM programs.
“In the last two years, our projected enrollment growth at the high school level was 351 students, but fine arts course requests increased by 1,215,” McGown said. “Students see the value in the arts whether they aspire to pursue a career in the arts, a STEAM-related field or something completely disassociated with the arts.”
The district’s STEAM Express mobile classroom was introduced in 2014 to provide interactive technological tools in science and art fields outside the regular classroom. The district also offers career and technical education courses including animation, computer-aided design and forensic science, McGown said.
Students who pursue STEAM disciplines in high school often go on to continue their studies in those fields in college. KISD students are heavily recruited by the Savannah College of Art and Design as a result of the experience they gain in high school, leading to careers in fields like video game design and development, McGown said.
SISD launched a program in the 2016-17 school year called Career Pathways that allows students to begin building a portfolio of classes—including Advanced Placement classes—in preparation for their college majors. SISD students can choose to focus on arts fields such as animation, fashion design and graphic design, as well as technical fields such as environmental science, firefighter science and sports medicine.
Although the district has not implemented a STEAM curriculum, administrators said the development of the program will include more offerings in both science and the arts.
“Future plans include redesigning the curriculum and instruction at Roberson Middle School for next school year to include three academies: Medical Math, Medical Science and Art Therapy,” said Cynthia Williams, director of career and technical education for SISD.
Educators said students who are currently in high school may be learning technology that will change before they enter the job market.
“In five years, there will be jobs and careers we didn’t think about five years before,” said Virginia Rangel, an assistant professor with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Houston. “This problem-based learning can give kids a leg up, because if you have that flexible thinking—the benefit of a liberal arts education—you can adapt.”