Patrice Dougan is the Herald's education reporter.

Students being taught New STEAM concept which mixes science and maths with art

• Art students also using science and maths in work
• Teachers are breaking down the gender barriers
• Student accepted into top universities around the world after using STEAM

Students are hurling paint at canvases Jackson Pollock-style in a new teaching technique that is also teaching them about science and maths.

It's just one way that kids are being taught the more traditional subjects, in a relatively new phenomenon known as STEAM. It's an acronym of science, technology, engineering and maths, but also introduces arts.

Proponents say it helps children learn by giving them real life examples of science, helps build creative thinking for the modern world, and helps break down barriers - both gender and academically - around science.

Yang created art pieces for her Cambridge A'Level exams, which combined the beauty of maths and physics. Photo / Michael Craig
Yang created art pieces for her Cambridge A'Level exams, which combined the beauty of maths and physics. Photo / Michael Craig

The concept goes to the heart of the science vs arts stereotypes, which often pit the two disciplines against each other. STEAM says that you can be both creative and mathematical, both artistic and into science.

The concept is championed by university researchers, career events and an afterschool club.

"I think you do have those kind of stereotypes," said Craig Grant, director of science engagement at Otago Museum, which runs a STEAM afterschool club.

He pointed to the "science is for the nerdy, geeky ones who don't have any kind of creative talent" image.

STEAM "is a helpful way of breaking that down", he said.

"I think even just the branding of it, as it's seen as kind of cool - you've got the Steam Punk and all these other things, so it's something that kind of decouples the historic, slightly nerdy, geeky, side of things into something that is quite funky and cool."

It also "helps kids who are into different areas mingle". he said.

STEAM is an acronym of the traditional subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths, plus arts. Photo / Michael Craig
STEAM is an acronym of the traditional subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths, plus arts. Photo / Michael Craig

The club has seen the kids looking at the patterns made by bacteria growing in petri dishes - and the physics of flight by designing their own wings.

"And doing Pollock paintings, where they splatter paint on a big canvas, and then talk about fractals and how things disperse and the maths that sit behind that as well," Grant said.

"You can imagine kids at that age, getting the chance to chuck paint at a canvas, I mean, who wouldn't?

"That's the stuff that gives that hook into saying, 'well, what does that pattern look like when you do it from this distance vs this distance?'. So you can start talking about vectors and trajectories and all that.

Other artwork by Yang. Photo / Michael Craig
Other artwork by Yang. Photo / Michael Craig

"They're a part of seeing it themselves and getting the connection between the 'Ah ok, the closer it is, the less the splatter, the further away the bigger, it's got this arc, you know gravity is pulling it down at the end'."

Alyona Medelyan, who organises STEAM Ahead events - a programme to encourage girls and their mothers to think about career choices in those fields - said the concept was an important way of breaking down gender barriers in what is seen as traditionally male-dominated science and tech fields.

She said often girls are directed away from science, maths and engineering careers before they've had a chance to consider them.

"I have a daughter myself, and we always make an effort of exposing her to all sorts of experiences, from ballet to putting together furniture - she prefers the latter - but we both work in technology," she said.

Yang's work incorporated biology. Photo / Michael Craig
Yang's work incorporated biology. Photo / Michael Craig

"Mums who don't have exposure to STEAM professions tend to discount it, and so STEAM Ahead is a way of educating them of various professions where women can work on interesting projects and be well-paid at the same time."

Most children now will be entering a workforce where technology will be a given, and an ability to be both creative and tech-savvy will be a boon, she said Those with an understanding of both will be best able to cope in an environment where the jobs of the future haven't been invented yet.

"Future-proofing your career should not be about dropping your interest in literature, history or design and switching into tech," she said.

"Technology will be at the core of pretty much every part of our lives, and I encourage young people to look out for intersections of fields that they are good at and that are in demand."

She advised young people to figure out their competitive advantage early, and become an expert in it.

'I don't look like a scientist'

Dr Siouxsie Wiles, one of the biggest advocates for STEAM, says people often don't realise she's a scientist. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Dr Siouxsie Wiles, one of the biggest advocates for STEAM, says people often don't realise she's a scientist. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Two of the bigger names in New Zealand STEAM are nanomechanical engineer Dr Michelle Dickinson - aka 'Nanogirl' - and microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

Both are big advocates for STEAM and breaking down gender barriers in the field.

At last year's Auckland Arts Festival, Wiles, head of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland, persuaded artists to create paintings using a bacteria solution, which turned into glow in the dark works of art once the bioluminescent bacteria grew.

It's a concept she's also taken to the US and Australia.

"One of the reasons I really like it is because it's ... bringing people to science through art. And we've had the opposite happen where at Auckland Arts Festival we had some people who were science-y, who would normally not go to arts stuff, come because it had a sort of science thing to it," she said.

It wasn't always the case that art and science were seen as two very separate disciplines, Wiles said, pointing to the early botanists who would send back intricate still-life drawings and paintings of the animals or plant species they had discovered, and Leonardo Da Vinci, "who was an incredible artist who was also an incredible scientist and inventor".

Dr Michelle Dickinson - aka 'Nanogirl' - is also a big advocate of STEAM. Photo / supplied
Dr Michelle Dickinson - aka 'Nanogirl' - is also a big advocate of STEAM. Photo / supplied

"Somehow we've lost that, somehow it has become more, you have to be one or the other.

"I think that is detrimental, and certainly when I was at school you were forced to go down one route or the other," she said.
It was time to bust these kind of unconscious biases, she said.

"Lots of people didn't think I was a scientist because I didn't look or behave like they expected me to behave. And I spend a lot of time going into schools and sort of saying, 'I'm a scientist', and showing pictures of scientists being creative and they're playing in bands and all that kind of stuff," she said.

Sought-after student's Stanford entry

Katherine Yang, is a former ACG Senior College student. Photo / Michael Craig
Katherine Yang, is a former ACG Senior College student. Photo / Michael Craig

Katherine Yang wants to be an artist and an engineer - a pretty unusual concept for many people.

The former ACG Senior College student created art pieces for her Cambridge A'Level exams, which also combined the beauty of maths and physics.

She was accepted into a number of top universities around the world, but chose Stanford because she wanted to combine engineering and science, with fine arts.

"I always liked the idea of maths, but I wasn't very good at it," she said.

"I wanted to understand how maths could be considered a fun pursuit, so I tried to see if there were any correlations between how beauty could be defined by art, if beauty could be defined by mathematics, and whether mathematics could be seen as beautiful."

Yang has been accepted into Stanford University after submitting her work. Photo / Michael Craig
Yang has been accepted into Stanford University after submitting her work. Photo / Michael Craig

She previously struggled with maths because she "didn't see the point" in it, she said, and "assumed that maths and science weren't fields I could be creative in".

But delving into the subject made her realise that she could be "very creative" in both.

"You can map a lot of what you can consider natural beauty and the natural world with mathematics and physics, in formulae and equations. "

Her final piece included a mathematical equation, and outlines of planets and human biology.

Helping children find the beauty in maths and the applicability outside school, would encourage more to embrace it, she believed, "especially in our digital age, where everything we interact with is mathematical".

Yang's final piece included a mathematical equation, and outlines of planets and human biology. Photo / Michael Craig
Yang's final piece included a mathematical equation, and outlines of planets and human biology. Photo / Michael Craig

- NZ Herald

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