What does STEAM mean?
STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. STEAM adds the “A” to represent the arts. According to EdTech Magazine, STEAM education is about more than just the subjects in its name. As STEAM consultant Georgette Yakman explains, "STEAM programs integrate subjects in an inquiry-based, hands-on curriculum in a way that more closely aligns with what students will experience in college and the workforce." In STEAM, creativity is the central focus. It not only expands STEM, it actually addresses, through real-world projects like creating a light plot, an elaborate costume, or an automated set of computer-generated sound cues, why the STEM subjects should matter to everyone.
STEAM theatre: rationale and context
STEAM theatre is not new. The ancient Greek scholar Pollux noted some nineteen mechanical theatrical devices, the best known being the “deus ex machina,”—a crane-like device that “flew” actors and scenery in and out of the performance area. Vitruvius, the first-century Roman architect, offers specific instructions on constructing a Roman theatre in his book De Architectura. Records of theatre productions during the Middle Ages mention mechanical effects frequently. One such reference detailed a stage set of hell’s mouth that opened, closed, and belched fire; flaming swords; burning altars and houses; thunder and lightning. Theatre and science continued to work hand-in-hand with the elaborate “scenery and machinery” in the large proscenium theatres of the Italian Renaissance, with apparatuses for flying scenery and performers. In the nineteenth-century, theatre performances reflected further developments in science, the most significant being the introduction of gas and, later, electricity, for stage lighting. Turn-of-the-century realistic dramas illustrated another advance for science, the invention of photography. Sets and costumes were designed as though seen through the eye of the camera to help ensure theatrical realism. Today, projection, animation, engineering, and other technology produce spectacular special effects in not only professional theatre productions but those we see on our high school stages throughout the country. STEAM theatre, whether recognized as such or not, has been with us for a very long time.
In 2015, when Representative Suzanne Bonamici introduced the arts into the STEM provisions of the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it signaled a federal recognition of the arts as a fundamental aspect of the well-rounded work and career preparation for all students in the twenty-first century. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the number of STEM/STEAM jobs in the United States will grow by 14% by 2020, growth that the Bureau of Labor Statistics terms as “much faster” than the national average of 5-8 % across all job sectors. Beyond the innate value of the arts, in order for students to be globally competitive in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math, it’s important to recognize that the key differentiators of success in these careers are creativity, imagination, and innovation—all fundamentals skills that theatre STEAM nurtures.
While STEM has been part of the national education conversation for some time, it has only been in the last few years that schools and their decision makers have begun to look at the value of integrating the arts—including theatre—into other subjects. Arts integration is a widely accepted model for not just STEM but for a wide range of subjects—history, geography, and English, to name a few. There are also exemplars that showcase how the arts can elevate the teaching of the STEM areas as well. The new challenge is for arts education to articulate how the STEM subject areas can be integrated in the other direction—that is, demonstrating how STEM subjects can inform the arts. For theatre, most obviously, virtually every area of technical theatre demands the application of knowledge and skill in science, technology, engineering, and math. For example, a designer must have an understanding of geometry and other math to create a stage plot. A lighting designer must be literate in color theory; and a play that includes a turntable demands a technician with engineering skills.
Exemplars of theatre-based STEAM education are not widespread, but they do exist. For example:
• The Goodman Theatre’s Stage Chemistry program is a standards-based curriculum that introduces teachers and students to the math, science and technology of theatrical production. In one lesson, entitled “What would my theatre look like?” students are asked to create a blueprint of a theatre and, in taking on the multiple roles of architect and designer, demonstrate the relationship of scale and proportion through visual and narrative explanations.
• Boston Academy’s STEAM Lab helps teachers and students explore the connections between the arts, science, and math, and incorporate new technology into their projects, including theatre design. Students explore the parallels of the artistic, scientific, and design processes and get “hands-on’ experience in 3D modeling and design, electronics, digital media, and fabrication. For one class project, a dance student prototyped her own “electroluminescent costume,” which used electrical currents to light up the fabric. She created the costume from sketch to reality, complete with working circuits, and all with the help of the school’s modeling software and a 3-D printer.
• The Stagecraft Institute of Las Vegas offers teachers and training in state-of-the-art entertainment technology training in areas such as stage automation, digital drafting, and special effects.
And there are also examples of how theatre performance can include STEM subjects.
• In David Auburn’s Tony Award-winning play Proof, a woman deals with the legacy of her late father, a mathematical genius who struggled with mental illness.
• Caryl Churchill’s play, A Number, examines the science of human cloning.
• Tom Stoppard, who has written several science-based scripts, blurs the past and present in Arcadia.
• Even musicals get attention in the whimsical Calculus the Musical.