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Powering Your STEM curriculum through arts, culture and creativity 

Seven STEAM networks in the South East enriched learning by bringing creativity into STEM subjects.

Eastbourne schools STEAM partnership Beach Clean. Credit: Artswork /Jane Dickson

This case study explores the value of the arts in STEM education through creating multiple networks that aligned primary and secondary schools with cultural and science partners. Written and led by Artswork.

This is one of 25 case studies highlighting the value of arts in schools and education settings, curated by arts education researcher Sarah B Davies. The suite of case studies illustrates the research The Arts In Schools: Foundations for the Future, by Pauline Tambling and Sally Bacon, due to be published in 2023.

About the project

In 2017 Artswork, with support from Arts Council England and the Department for Education, created seven STEAM networks across schools in the South East to support a step-change in the way schools used the arts within their science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum (STEM).

The networks established new working relationships between education, cultural and STEM partners, ran CPD for teachers and created pupil and teacher resources. They also supported schools with Artsmark and Arts Award, embedding ACE quality principles throughout. The seven networks each chose their own focus.

  • In Eastbourne, an exploration of the impact of plastics on beach and marine life used a range of art forms (photography, sculpture, journaling, graphic design), alongside talks by Marine Biologists and STEAM ambassadors, to lead to a final public exhibition.
  • In Hampshire, a network looked at the theme of structures, including using ‘The Hunger Games’ books/films to learn about polymers and designing ‘victor parachutes’ to transport eggs to the ground safely.
  • In Oxfordshire and Milton Keynes projects were inspired by Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, on ‘breaking the code’ and pattern recognition and innovation.
  • In Kent, projects focused on the theme of motion and the Universe
  • In East Sussex, a project focused on place and space.

STEAM project resources and information:

What worked well

Each of the seven STEAM networks was led by a school/college and involved a group of local schools, artists, and a STEM professional or organisation. The aim was to establish collaboration between these groups and create new opportunities for children and young people to bring creativity and imagination to their learning, exploring how collaborative, creative approaches could enrich arts and STEM subjects. This worked well with students, finding exploring science through the arts really stimulating. They learnt how creative thinking helped their science skills, and as illustrated below, how an artistic skill like photography could enhance their observation skills.

An example of one of the networks

In Eastbourne, East Sussex, Eastbourne College brought together six secondary schools, STEM Sussex and Photoworks. This network investigated the ways art and science could work together in a series of cross-curricular projects, with photography chosen as the tool to communicate learning. This programme centred on raising pupil awareness of plastic pollution in the oceans and the need for urgent ecological and environmental change. Pupils spent a day at Eastbourne beach exploring the impact of plastics on beach and marine life. In the morning, they collected and sorted plastic and other rubbish with the help of Surfers Against Sewage, Eastbourne Borough Council, Marine Conservation Society and STEM Sussex. In the afternoon they worked with photographer Elizabeth Doak on creative photography activities. This then formed the basis of a final exhibition from the young photographers, entitled ‘Riptide: Observations of Marine Pollution’, featuring photography, journaling and graphic design.

Prior to the beach clean day teachers from all schools in the network had taken part in four CPD sessions including workshops on marine ecology, provided by STEM Sussex professionals, and creative photography. Time to work collaboratively to plan the projects was also part of the CPD. Marine biologists and STEM ambassadors visited the schools to give talks on ocean ecology and the impact of plastic waste.

Several students mentioned the impact of the project on their understanding of marine conservation in the evaluation with this being the area of highest enthusiasm. Students talked of how eye-opening the experience had been, and the passion it gave them for ecology. Using creative approaches to STEM subjects brought them alive for students.

‘It was educational and a great way to express our creativity’ (Student)

‘I really enjoyed the process of creating a piece. I found the different activities inspiring’, (Student)

Other networks used a ‘STEAM Day’ to launch to their projects, whilst Bridgemary school in Hampshire ran a six week cross-curricular project based on The Hunger Games.

What was challenging

For the Eastbourne network of secondary schools, challenges included: pressure on teachers’ time; difficulty for schools in taking on projects additional to the planned curriculum; working across different departments in schools; and a lack of flexibility in timetabling. Challenges were compounded by some additional difficulties in communicating with schools, setting project expectations, and clarity around roles and responsibilities within the project team at the start. However, the schools agreed that overcoming the challenges was worth the extra effort.

The biggest challenge faced by partners across all networks was time, which can be broken down into three elements: developing relationships; planning the project; managing and delivering the project.

In some cases teachers faced a challenge in engaging the schools to initially form a network, which took more time than was anticipated. Although, having invested the time these relationships are now long lasting.

The pressure to get projects up and running quickly led to activity taking place before relationships, across some networks, were properly established or a full understanding of the aims of the project shared.

The majority of schools had teaching staff also planning and delivering activity, with lead schools having the extra responsibility of coordinating networks. In a few cases teachers were expected to fit their project around their other school commitments with no dedicated time allowed beyond attending network planning meetings.

In primary schools the focus on literacy and numeracy, especially at KS2, meant that involving students in activities that took them out of school for a whole day or even a morning was sometimes problematic.

The urgency of getting underway meant that in some networks teachers didn’t get trained as Arts Award advisors until after the project started. This meant that they were not aware of how and where the Arts Award could be integrated into their work, and students lost the opportunity to gain this. Cross-department working was limited, especially in the higher years of secondary schools, and teachers commented that even finding mutually convenient time to talk to those in other departments was challenging. In their evaluation one lead school emphasised `the importance of integrating STEM, rather than bolting it on to an Arts learning experience‘.

What can others learn?

  • The value that bringing arts and creative approaches into STEM subjects gives to student learning by increasing engagement, developing observation skills and increasing resilience. Science is seen as more than learning facts but being open to experimentation and creative approaches.
  • In programmes of this complexity allow sufficient time for relationships between partners to develop before going into the planning stage, which also benefits from more time.
  • Cross-curricular projects require cross-curricular involvement at secondary schools. This is important in embedding practice through improved understanding of the links between subjects, as well as spreading the load of project delivery.
  • The value of cross-curricular CPD and of making reflection part of CPD by allocating time for it during the planning process. A mid point session for all those involved in a programme to get together and reflect on what they have experienced and observed, along with another at the end of the programme, helps embed learning.
  • Include tailored Artsmark Development Days and Arts Award adviser training as part of project planning. Artsmark’s requirement for Senior Leaders to attend a development day would reduce the risk of schools accepting project funding without committing to aims around embedding practice and sustainability. Ensure Senior Leadership Team commitment to the project aims, as this is key to achieving lasting changes in practice. This involves practical aspects, such as allowing staff dedicated time to manage the project, agreeing to come off timetable for project weeks or facilitating cross-departmental working, but also includes recognising and celebrating achievement of both students and staff.
  • Schools should be supported to link projects to their existing priorities, e.g. School Improvement Plans, School Development Plans, to increase buy-in and commitment.