Curriculum Approaches

STEM, STEAM, and PBL: 3 Acronyms You Should Actually Care About (Ep. 012)

In this episode, Andrew will shed some light on new acronyms from the art ed world including STEM, STEAM, and PBL. He’ll share how to start incorporating these teaching philosophies into your classroom in order to get your students thinking like designers. He’ll even talk about why having the STEM vs. STEAM debate isn’t worth your time.

Joining Andrew will be his longtime friend and colleague, Ryan McInroy. Ryan is a fellow Iowa art educator and a bonafide STEAM expert.

Andrew and Ryan discuss the unifying threads of STEM, STEAM, PBL and art and why these new paradigms don’t have to be a source of fear or confusion for art teachers (16:00). They also talk about how STEAM and PBL can lead art teachers to collaborate with other teachers in the building (21:00). Finally, Ryan and Andrew discuss how art teachers can be leaders when schools start adopting a STEAM or PBL approach (24:00 ). Full episode transcript below.

Resources and Links:

Art Ed Radio Ep 12




Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education and I’m your host Andrew McCormick.
For teachers that have been around a while its hard not to adopt a this too shall pass attitude when you know every three or four years your District or Administrator’s going to roll out a hot new educational strategy to adopt. The acronyms, we love them right PBS, the three R’s, SLO’s, SOA, PLC’s, LBA, IBIT, AIW. I’ve got to confess once during an exceptionally boring and irrelevant day of PD I tried to see if the acronyms that our school were actually fill up every letter of the alphabet. I think I was only missing and X and a Z.

I don’t see STEM, STEAM and PBL this way. These aren’t your run of the mill acronyms. These guys are so big and so encompassing and honestly so fraught with fear and misunderstanding from the ranks of the art teachers out there that these acronyms aren’t going anywhere. We’ve got to deal with them. To help me wrap my brain around them and to share some really cool, steamy ideas is my good friend Ryan.

Ryan: Hi, this is Ryan McInroy. I’m the Osage High School/Middle School art teacher. Next year I’m going to be a creative consultant with a four District wide consortium to be focusing on STEAM curriculum.

Andrew: I want to hit on two very specific ideas. Number one why we should care about these new STEM, STEAM and PBL acronyms anyway and then, number two what art teachers can do to be more inclusive of these new directions. Then, finally, before I bring on Ryan, I’m going to surprise you a little bit with a curve ball here. I’m going to actually talk about why I think the whole STEM versus STEAM debate is actually stupid, but more on that later.

Ryan: STEM, STEAM and PBL are the future of education that’s why we should care.

Andrew: Here’s why we should care. Now listen, I’m going to be frank with you. If you don’t like change you’re going to like irrelevance a whole lot less. I know that’s a bumper sticker somewhere, but it’s true. As art teachers we’ve got to stay informed of new educational movements that affect us. We need to be proactive and if we’re not we could easily allow ourselves to be downsized. This really is a matter of survival and advocacy. I think education is currently a little schizophrenic. We love our standardized tests and data and accountability, but at the same time as a reaction to this we are looking for more open ended and creativity focused things like 21st Century skills and the National Core Art Standards. As schools are looking and thinking of curriculum less as an accumulation of skills and more about adopting mindsets and dispositions I think that STEM and STEAM really ought to be at the forefront of the shift.

The new, cool educational currency is creativity. It’s what everyone says they want businesses, schools, parents and we’ve got to focus on this. It’s what we need to trade in and it’s what we need to give our students. Caring about STEM and STEAM means that we care about education, not just our survival as art teachers. STEM, STEAM, PBL its how all students learn. They, these acronyms, are really the vehicles by which our students learn lots of different skills and lots of different students, not just your “artsy types”. All of our students practice creativity through STEAM and PBL.

Art teachers really are the champions and defenders of creativity, so we have to be at the front lines of schools adopting STEM and STEAM strategies because it really is what we do so naturally. If we don’t do it who will? In adjusting to a more STEAM paradigm we have to realize that we can’t do the same lessons that we’ve done for years. By the way, where did those lessons come from? Probably from a former teacher or maybe they were legacy projects that were left over in the school when we got that job.

The argument that we should do things because we’ve always done them that way that holds no water with me, so a STEAMy, PBL curriculum is going to look different. Students will think more like designers and less like artists. A focus is going to be put more on the design process. Not only will projects and student work look a little different materials are going to look different as well.

We use tools. We use math. Aesthetics might sometimes take a backseat to simple machines and physics and conversations about common denominators. I’m doing a scale sculpture project. I don’t want anyone out there thinking I’m talking denominators all the time. Did I mention the power tools? That’s like my favorite part of this. Sometimes I feel like my art classroom it’s like someone dropped a big, old ball of glitter and awesomeness and in a more traditional, industrial tech classroom and I really think that the students are benefiting from that outlook.

I wrote an AOE article a few months ago called “A Case for Hoarding in the Classroom” where I mentioned some of the different types of new materials that I’ve been using for my more STEAM and choice based curriculum. I’ve designed Hollywood special effects zombie heads. I’ve made cardboard arcade consoles a la Chuck E. Cheese. I’ve made boats out of junk and functional cardboard armor. Not only have these STEAM projects been a lot of fun, but I know that it’s shifted the focus from making beautiful, finished objects to take home to Mom and Dad to more of a process where students are building and talking through creative problem solving.

They may sometimes be a little less glamorous to look at, but I know that my students learned way more in these design build projects than they used to learn with more straightlaced, value and perspective drawings. I still do some of that stuff, but I need to do the bigger, messier, more chaotic STEAM projects to really make sure that education is sticking with all of my students.
This brings me to my final point. Why I think the STEAM versus STEM debate is actually stupid. I used to really, really care about this whole thing. I was that annoying teacher that would come up to complete strangers on the street if I overheard them talking about STEM and correct them. “You mean STEAM; don’t forget arts in the middle with the A.” Then, I realized the errors in my way, but before I get to that I actually want to level a little critique of STEM.

Here it is. It’s nothing new. We’ve had science and math education in this country ever since we’ve had education in this country. Having a science or math curriculum doesn’t mean you’re teaching STEM. I love STEM. I honestly think that I could’ve been an engineer if the ships had fallen differently. I really don’t think that there’s much of a difference between artists and engineers. Having a math textbook and a math teacher does not a STEM program make.

Actually infusing arts into STEM is how STEM becomes cool and how it sticks and how it becomes memorable for kids. They need that creativity piece and that’s where art serves such an important function. This is where I realize the big errors of my ways. Do we only cherish the things that we put in the new, shiny acronym? What about PE? I love gym. What about English? What about social studies? Are those disciplines not important?

If they are and we need to add them to the acronym we’ve got to go out a reprint the letterhead that said STEM on it or maybe even the more progressive STEAM and to [inaudible 00:07:50] to incorporate all that stuff. That just sounds awful. It sounds like a mythological creature or something. Just like the Hobbits in Middle Earth there is one acronym to rule them all. It’s PBL, Project Based Learning.

Students learn by doing. Students would much rather do math than learn about it. Students would much rather do science than memorize science facts. Teachers in schools need to get out of the textbook and start learning by doing, doing PBL. Again, I circle back to my belief that this is how all students learn best and art teachers do this better than any other teachers out there. Hence, we are the most important people in the building. Kidding, not really kidding.

I am really happy to share that AOE has a new course that they just launched this spring. I think if you’re really fascinated by this divide or the unifying forces in the whole STEM/STEAM/PBL debate then the project based art room is definitely a course that you’ll want to check out. I just started teaching this course this May and I love how it explores how best to run a maker space; how to implement design thinking strategies; how to really make arts integration work.

If you’re ready to enhance your classrooms, 4C’s, there is go with the acronyms again, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, creativity, then definitely check out the Project Based Art Room. It’s a three credit course and it starts at the beginning of the month, so head on over to the and sign up now. Maybe I will actually even be your instructor this summer. Let’s hear from Ryan and let’s talk all things STEAM and PBL.

Ryan, man, thanks for joining me how you doing today?

Ryan: I’m great, how are you Andrew?

Andrew: I’m doing good. Ryan we’ve know each other for a bunch of years and through different jobs and different schools. I’ve really always loved your unique approach to your curriculum. I love your cool projects that you do. Let’s jump right into it. What cool, STEMy, STEAMy, PBL type projects are you doing right now with your students?

Ryan: In the art room everything is project based learning. We really have a head start in this area. Right now my eighth graders, for example, we are working with designs of social issues. They are actually creating documentaries in their English classes, so we are looking at documentary film covers. We’re looking at what sells an audience. What type of message graphics, lettering, colors, how does that message in just one poster sell your movie, sell your documentary?

We are also working in mixed media design working with some recycling. I coach tennis, so I’ve got hundreds of tennis sleeves, the empty tubes that the tennis balls come in. that was an interesting challenge to the students in my mixed media design class. Here’s a tube. You’ve got to create a 3D sculpture inside of it. How are you going to go about this? What sort of material?

Andrew: Cool.

Ryan: It wasn’t just handed to them and say go and here are your supplies. I actually have them generate ideas. What are possibilities? What materials will you need? That thing where it’s the upfront thinking process behind it that’s just a couple examples.

Andrew: Yeah, man, that’s awesome, I feel like I could turn this into thirty minutes of just me stealing cool ideas from you because I like both of those a lot. one of the things you mentioned we’re actually going to get to a little bit later working with other teachers a little bit which sounds really interesting.
Before we get to that I want to ask you if you think that there’s a difference between what we’ve traditionally thought of as a fine art capital A art curriculum and what it sounds like you and I are doing which is maybe a little bit more of a design curriculum. You think there’s much difference there?

Ryan: That’s a great question. I don’t know. I guess its yes and no. Fine arts, when I hear that word fine arts, I’m thinking museum. I’m thinking walking around in a fine art museum and looking at something. I think what we’re doing here with design curriculum is actually part of fine arts. It’s just we’re using design curriculum which is basically this design process from what artists already do that are showcasing artists in museums.

We are taking that design process and we are applying it to much more than just saying at the end of this you’re going to create something that hangs on the wall. We’re looking at something that says at the end of this what has this done? Is this project more than just something that hangs on this wall? Is this project interactive with other people? Does this project affect other people somehow?

I think it’s both worlds really. I hope I answered that as clear and muddy as possible, but it is. I think as art teachers we have to find this balance because there still is art of art’s sake, but with the new approach to STEAM and PBL we really need to look at how are we generating some of these ideas. What are those ideas coming from that our students are working with?

Andrew: You brought up a really good point which was actually my next question which the key word there is balance. Some people might think that they’re radically different. I think you and I both agree that they’re really not that different. they’re both getting at the same … They’re just different approaches to getting at the same thing which is to make sure our students are building their creative capacity, problem solving, learning skills, communicating that really 21st Century type language. How do you balance both of those? Have you ever felt like you’ve lost some of what you had when you used to be more of “traditional” art curriculum teacher? How do you balance it?

Ryan: I think a balance can be struck just by having students work in either a visual journal or a sketchbook. Really on the art teacher side being really demanding that before they do anything they are sketching out ideas that they are writing down thoughts. I think just part of that is the design process.

Now, if they’re creating maybe it’s a painting class and they’re thinking about this new canvas in front of them that’s entirely blank. Rather than just handing them the paints and say go for it and just paint what you feel. No, it’s let’s examine some things. Let’s get some things written down on the sketches. What are some of your interests? What are some of your questions? That’s all part of the design process is asking questions, thinking of some different problems that they’d like to tackle with this image, with this painting or whatever it is.

I think that’s a key component is the design process is all about starting with questions. I think for fine art taking those questions and investing and really understanding where you’re going along this design process. I think the outcome is much more richer than just saying I just did it because that’s what I was feeling. No, I did it because I asked this question and some of my interest took me along this journey. This is where I ended up.

Andrew: The worst student response that a teacher can hear why’d you do this? You told me to. I’m doing the project that you told me to do. I’m doing the art work you told me to. It’s like I’ve definitely heard that from time to time. I just feel like man I’ve really missed out on an integral part of the students developing their interests and their own method at approaching this thing.

Ryan, we’re only a handful of minutes into our interview and I already know this is going so well because I want to ditch all my questions I thought I was going to ask you and ask you all sorts of other ones. You’ve brought up some good things. One of the things you keep referencing is the design process whether it’s in painting or something that sounds like maybe more of graphic design or illustration class.

We have all these words STEM, STEAM, PBL, design thinking, design curriculum design process. Does that vernacular, verbiage ever get muddy for you? Do you really get hung up on it? Do you care or is it just like this is what I do, call it whatever the heck you want to call it.

Ryan: Yeah, the latter there. Like I said, getting the students to start thinking before they just jump into anything. I’m just going to go back to where you had just mentioned the student that says to the teacher I did t6hsi because that’s what you want me to do. that’s a tough area too because we don’t want to just give them, we don’t want to frontload something so much that they’re just following the directions as is and then just creating a product. At the same time we don’t want to … It’s hard because a lot of or students yet they’re not used to open-endedness.

Andrew: Right.

Ryan: Regular curriculum in other classrooms theirs is just a procedure. Here’s the information. This is what I’m expecting of you and then you go ahead and do this. Your math classes, any other classes I think sometimes that’s how students are feeling. When they get into the art room and you say here’s what I want you to do. You’ve got to come up with five questions and then we’re going to talk in fifteen minutes. They just look at you blank like questions about what?

It’s too open-ended and so it’s that thinking part of it. The beginning of design process is very tough for some of our students that are just starting into all of this PBL that’s going on in the schools. I think it’s something that as more and more teachers are working with it in other classrooms. I think they’re really going to get a handle of what we’re asking for and that it’s not just about here’s something, do it, turn it in. It’s this is a big project and what’s the big idea behind it? I think I backtracked. I don’t even think I answered your second …

Andrew: No, this is all good stuff. We’re just making little circles here, but we keep progressing which I like. one of the things I know we feel the same about this is why I think teachers would want to do this is I think it’s a more inclusive approach than what you said early on with the fine arts capital a Arts. It’s this beautiful thing I hung on the wall and it communicates. That’s great if we feel like we’re training or preparing all of our kids to do that in the future. I think a more design STEM/STEAM/PBL curriculum is preparing lots of different types of people for lots of different types of avenues and professions. Does that make sense?

Ryan: Definitely, I think the more we read about this the more education PBL that is being putout there. You’re hearing from the industry whether it’s the startup world that’s out there now. Creativity is so important and it’s not just creativity for a person can draw really well it’s that thinking side of creativity, it’s the problem solving. It’s people that can work in a team and come up with solutions.

I think that’s where the art teacher, that’s why it’s so exciting right now is because we’ve always been working in creativity. We’ve always been working in areas that how can we come up with a visual solution to this problem? Now, that side of creativity of how can we think differently? I think that really important. It applies to everything. It applies to your English, your science, your mathematics, everywhere. I guess that’s what makes me excited about it. It’s this idea of creativity is getting brought forward and creative thinking is being brought forward. It’s not just about making pictures, but it’s about how can we think outside the box?

Andrew: You’ve alluded a couple times now to rubbing up against and rubbing off on other teachers. Whether it’s that project you mentioned where they were making documentary covers because they were doing that in English or even all of the other teachers who are finally getting wind that PBL’s the way to go. Let’s not just learn about science, let’s do science. Let’s not learn about math, but let’s apply math. I wanted to ask you does your more STEAM and design thinking PBL curriculum, does that push you to start collaborating with other teachers in your building or are you just hunkering down and going it on your own?

Ryan: I guess because everything is so new. I really feel like a Hans Solo in a way.

Andrew: Now, be careful. You know what happens at the end no spoilers here.

Ryan: Let me just finish here. I will find out what others are doing like the English project for the eighth graders. I know that our English teacher is really excited about PBL. Just by chance just figuring out what students have been talking about and then just walking into the library and discovering some of his students working on the documentaries, doing some of the filming. I just started emailing back and forth and said I think this would be a good fit. While they’re creating documentaries in the art room they could be working on, we could be looking at design aspects of the film cover. Not every English class is doing this; some English classes are doing social issues. They’re creating a poster. We’re actually looking at how can we get our issue, how can we get our message on a visual scale out there for people to recognize and say I want to watch that or I want to look into more about what this website is.

In a way I think a lot of the teachers are still in a solo process of it. I think more and more Districts are really wanting teachers to do that collaboration. I think it’s just a matter of finding the right fit with the right teachers that are willing to try this. For some of them it’s stepping outside of their comfort zone in trying PBL. It’s schedule wise we don’t always have the same students at the same times either. I think it’s going to be more collaborative.
I think that’s really what is going to make it for the students is realizing that this project is more than just this class, this hour. We’re working on this side of it in English class fifth hour. We’re working on this side during art class sixth hour. There’s that collaboration that’s going on.

Andrew: I think we would both agree that when that happens, when it finally hits and everyone’s doing it and the students are seeing the connections and the teachers are collaborating. This would definitely benefit all the curriculum of your school and the environment and the learning atmosphere and everything. I wonder what you think about. Do you feel like that art teachers are the natural leaders of this sort of PBL/STEAM design thinking initiative?

Ryan: I definitely feel that art teachers should be part of this. If PBL is entering the school system they need to step in, volunteer. They need to get their foot in the door with this type of education and not just hang in the background. I really do feel that the art teacher should be part of this. In a way we’re the creative consultants.

Rather than a science project that is just put on a poster board or something. We’re trying to push them to the next level with it. Art teachers we just have a sense of design, of what is visually appealing. We can really take some of their projects and work with the science teacher, work with the students. Try to create something that really gets the project notice, gets the kids more invested in it, makes them a little bit more excited about it. Maybe they’re working with computer animation or something. Maybe they’re working with some form of new technology and it’s exciting.

I think art teachers should be there, definitely should be there. I guess I wouldn’t say necessarily the leader. Yeah, if you can pop in there and become the leader of it certainly, but as art teachers most art teachers are pretty scrambled with some of their other classrooms going as well. I don’t think that they should stay in reserves about it. If they have an opportunity to lead with it then definitely if their Administrators or schools wanting them to go that way I think they should definitely embrace it.

Andrew: Yeah, maybe leader is too tough a word. We got to be at the table.

Ryan: Yes.

Andrew: This is what we do. This is what we eat, breathe and sleep is PBL. We do it better than anyone else. I like what you said we really should be the consultant. Let’s wrap up on that note of being a consultant and I’m going to ask you for our listeners out there. There’s a new teacher who’s really intrigued with STEAM and the school is pushing STEM. They want to show how the arts do that and do it better. Do you have maybe one or two specific strategies for someone out there who wants to get a more STEAMy/PBL curriculum going?

Ryan: I guess strategy wise as I don’t know if I could call it a strategy. I would say for that teacher who really wants to get things going it’s just a matter of being flexible and being willing to communicate, start talking to other teachers and finding out what’s going on. I don’t think it’s difficult to incorporate STEAM into your art curriculum. I think it’s out there. I think it’s just a matter of finding out what other classrooms are doing. Then, try to bring that in and expand on that.

There’s simple things like when you’re teaching color theory and start looking at the interior of the eye and the rods and the cones and color wave lengths. Little things like that make that science connection. A lot of that is just, yeah, communicate with others in the building and find out if they want to try something there’s many opportunities for it.

Andrew: Yeah, I would just add to that, I think when you mentioned you’re doing the thing with the tennis balls sleeves. I think that what I love so much about your curriculum. You’re willing to ditch what you’ve done and try new things. That, to me, would be the biggest thing is like just embrace change. Embrace it like your projects aren’t going to look like they used to and that’s okay. The learning might be really, really different and even better than what you did before.

Ryan: Yes, both for the student and the teacher. I’ve learned so many things by trying new projects. Things that were at the end of I’ll say I’m never doing that again. You learn something along the way. You learn some of the materials that didn’t quite work out with students. You learn some things that wow I didn’t expect them to take it in this direction. I think that’s a good quality for any art teacher is just to be flexible and be willing to try and change things. Almost every quarter, every semester just change something up and try it.

Andrew: Yeah, man, thanks a lot of the great ideas. I look forward to seeing you again pretty soon here.

Ryan: Okay, that’s sounds good Andrew.

Andrew: All right, see you Ryan.

Ryan: Thank you.

Andrew: What an awesome guest. I just love catching up with that guy. The last time I actually caught up with Ryan was at an architectural design challenge that we both had high school students at. Our students, both Ryan’s and mine, had used Google SketchUp and Chief Architect to design some architectural spaces. Then, use a 3D printer to print off a model. it was a fun and concrete way to see how two art teachers were embracing technology and engineering and creativity to give our students learning opportunities that an art curriculum that maybe had yet to figure out how to embrace STEAM and PBL might not have been able to provide. Embrace the tech, embrace the shift to design. It’s not an either or thing though and your art curriculum won’t suffer if anything, embracing STEAM and PBL will attract more students that had previously self-labeled themselves as not being too artsy into investing your art classes.

In closing there’s this great article out there floating around on the Internet by the great Danny Gregory about getting rid of art education. Now, don’t let that title fool you. It’s really about creating an environment and a curriculum that’s less capital A Art centric and more creativity focused. For many of us art teachers out there STEAM and PBL are a great natural way to do that. It was such a great article that I think I’m going to have to have Tim on next week to discuss the future or art education.

Art Ed Radio is developed, produced and supported by the Art of Education with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. If you want to support the show and enjoy what we’re doing please subscribe on iTunes, leave some comments, write a review that really does help us reach even more awesome listeners and you guys are awesome. We especially enjoy those five star reviews that we’ve been getting and all the new subscriptions we’ve been getting. New episodes of Art Ed Radio will be released every Tuesday and additional content can be found under the podcast tab on All right guys, thanks for listening!

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.