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Oak Ridge, TN Schools Implement STEAM Curriculum

Schools integrate arts into traditional STEM-based classes.

By Teree Caruthers on October 17, 2016

Oak Ridge, TN STEAM Curriculum
Oak Ridge / Colby McLemore

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that by 2022, the number of STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – jobs will grow to more than 9 million. While many schools nationwide are implementing a STEM-based curriculum, some innovative school systems, such as Oak Ridge Schools, are recognizing the importance of integrating the arts into traditional math and science courses. School leaders believe this more well-rounded curriculum will better prepare students for those high-tech jobs that require skills such as critical thinking and collaboration.

“As many districts do, we have wrestled with a definition of STEM that includes not only the arts, but is trans-disciplinary,†says Holly Cross, supervisor of Career Readiness and Communications for Oak Ridge Schools. “The difference-maker for us was the implementation of project/problem-based learning in which students encounter real-life problems and engage in collaboratively finding meaningful and creative solutions. These projects are unique in that they are grounded in standards, often from multiple subjects, and then have the opportunity for peer review, revisions and public presentation.”

4Cs of STEAM

Cross says the school system came to the conclusion that problem-based learning centered on the “4Cs” – collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking.

“Intricately related to the 4 Cs are the overarching standards in the fine arts: creating, producing, responding and connecting,†she says. “When students are given opportunities to work collaboratively and approach solutions through the lenses of multiple disciplines, they have a more rich experience that builds their confidence, helps them cooperatively communicate their ideas to others and learn to manage themselves more efficiently.”

She points to Jim Dodson, a Jefferson Middle School visual arts teacher, and Chris Layton, a former sixth- and seventh-grade social studies teacher and current vice principal, as examples of instructors who successfully implement art-infused, project-based learning.

“These teachers looked outside the traditional STEM acronym to create meaningful cross-disciplinary learning for their students that focused on the art and history of Oak Ridge. They worked closely with Ed Westcott, Oak Ridge’s most famous historical photographer, and historians such as Ray Smith and Keith McDaniel,” Cross says. “Students learned about the life and work of these famous Oak Ridgers, and had the opportunity to depict the learning with their own drawings of various historical events and of Westcott’s photographs.”

Cross-discipline Collaboration

She says Dodson also worked with seventh-grade science students to draw DNA and microorganisms as they observed them through microscopes, and one of the school’s STEM instructors worked with Layton’s social studies classes to create models of redesigned Oak Ridge housing and retail facilities. At Oak Ridge High School, the economics instructor, Tom Sauer, joined forces with the digital arts instructor, Victor Green, to help students identify and solve some of the city’s retail and recreational gaps.

“While Mr. Sauer taught students about the economic aspects of city planning, Mr. Green assisted them in effectively marketing their ideas to the chamber of commerce and other community members through websites, brochures, business cards and video commercial shorts,†Cross says,

Vidal Moreno, Oak Ridge High School science teacher and faculty sponsor of the Masquers drama troupe, says the integration of arts and science leads to innovation and is a natural fit for the city that has launched a number of major scientific advances.

“The arts was the inspiration for the innovation of the cell phone and tablets. The inventors of both claimed that they were inspired by Star Trek – in the case of the cell phone – and Star Trek: The Next Generation in the case of tablets. In this case, artists dreamed of the next logical step based on the STEM innovations of their day, inspired the STEM innovators of the next generation,†Moreno says. “The history of Oak Ridge is also one that stresses STEAM instead of STEM. It’s not a coincidence that Oak Ridge had one of the earliest community bands and orchestras in the area. It’s not a coincidence that Oak Ridge has one of the oldest community playhouses in East Tennessee. Ballet and dance became vibrant here – here in a community of scientists and mathematicians.”

STEAM inspires STEM to go beyond logic and mathematics and mechanics. After a long hard day of doing STEM, STEAM gives us the motivation for getting back up and doing it again the next day.

Vidal Moreno
Oak Ridge High School science teacher
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