STEAM Hack October 2015

16 November 2015

On 28-29 October we hosted a 24-hour Hack at the Science Museum to explore the notion of STEAM: adding the A of ‘arts’ to the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.

What happened?

40 leading artists, scientists and teachers were locked in the Museum and asked to Hack our school curriculum and come up with radical, practical solutions for STEAM in schools. They worked through the night. They talked, sketched, downed coffee, roamed the Museum and heard from experts such as Dr Daniel Glaser of King’s College Science Gallery, Designers at NASA and academics from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD).

In the morning, four teams presented their ideas to a panel of young people, teachers, academics, industry and cultural leaders. It was a brilliant, inspiring and energising event and we will be supporting the Hack participants to work up their ideas into finished resources.

What did we learn?

STEM history

Over the last 20 years the government has been prioritising and incentivising Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects in schools and higher education. There are bursaries for teachers wanting to study these subjects; there’s money for innovation and research in HE; and Science, Technology and Maths subjects sit within the government’s English Baccalaureate Performance measure.

This push for STEM has happened for good reason: we need young people with the skills, knowledge and understanding to become leaders in our workforce; we need the gender and disadvantage gaps to disappear; and we need everyone to understand how exciting and creative STEM subject are.

However, at the CLA we believe that a focus on STEM doesn't go nearly far enough.

The case for STEAM

There is strong evidence showing that employers across our leading industries need recruits with arts and creative skills, knowledge and understanding – people who can visualise, empathise and communicate, ask questions, experiment, create and perform. As Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, said in his MacTaggart lecture in 2011, the UK desperately needs polymaths.

The CLA is not the only organisation that agrees: NESTA has been making this case with us for many years – in its Next Gen Report and its recent study on jobs for the future, Creativity vs Robots. The OECD has acknowledged the problem, as has PWC in its latest report, Imagi-Nation: the business of Creativity.  The Creative Industries Federation published a report on STEAM earlier this year, and in the United States, universities such as Harvard and RISD are spearheading a movement to put the arts into STEM – creating STEAM. All of these organisations believe that the best chance for the UK, and for our students, is a rounded education where learners are enabled to explore both Arts and Science.

This isn't just an economic argument. At the plenary event of our STEAM Hack we heard from students and Museum Directors alike – each making an impassioned case for both the Arts and STEM being critical components of the person they are today.

The situation in schools

We began the HACK by talking about the difference between silo and specialism and about the need to capitalise on expertise without creating unhelpful boundaries between subjects and professionals. There was obvious common ground between scientists, artists, science teachers and arts teachers – teaching, art and science are all concerned with communication of ideas, with rigour and passion. However, it soon became clear that in schools, rigid assessment structures and curriculum imperatives combine with heavy work-loads to squeeze out time to breathe, collaborate or innovate. The pressure doesn't just come internally from the system: parents and students want their children to succeed and there are no clear messages presented to them about the value of cross-disciplinary teaching and learning. There are, of course, visionary head teachers who find ways round these social and professional pressures, who are able to find the confidence to create a different kind of schools culture – but without visionary leadership from government and heads, teachers are struggling.

Hack findings

Each team of STEAM hackers talked about ways to lever open space in a curriculum that is, in reality, too dense and restrictive to easily allow different subjects, teachers and external experts to work together. They talked about the pedagogy they’d like to use – about flipped classrooms, student-led and object-based learning, and, critically, about thematic approaches where subject specialists and industry leaders could each support different enquiries into the same topic – giving young people opportunities to investigate deeply and broadly. The government’s aims for the new curriculum – that it is optional (if you’re an academy or free school) and is an enabling, slim, framework – don’t seem to be translating effectively on the ground.

At the end of the session our Hack teams presented their ideas to a panel and invited audience. Their suggestions included:

  1. STEAM Starters: five minute STEAM tasks and provocations for teachers to access via and App in any lesson.
  2. STEAM journals: specially designed notebooks that enable learners to explore and record thinking and work across both science and arts disciplines.
  3. STEAM Cookbook: STEAM lesson plans that range from traditionally subject-based lessons, to after school clubs, to team teaching and whole-school learning days.
  4. Object-based learning through STEAM: a crowd-sourced database of object-based learning materials and STEAM teaching suggestions for both arts and science teachers created by and with teachers.

We also talked about the need for:

  • a national network of STEAM advocates and practitioners will be established, mirroring that already set up in the US. This will be co-ordinated initially by the CLA
  • a digital STEAM resource bank set up through Creative Skillset
  • the establishment of an All Party Parliamentary Group for STEAM.


So what else is needed if STEAM is to become a reality? 

  1. Government to support and invest in the Arts subjects, giving them status and parity in schools, and we need leadership from our politicians, from Ofsted and from heads
  2. On-going support for our pioneer STEAM leaders and exposure to the principles of STEAM for all teachers.
  3. A system which trusts learners enough to let them experiment and allows them to think for themselves.
  4. Space for colleagues across disciplines to plan and teach together without putting up unhelpful boundaries
  5. The ideas and resources of the STEAM Hackers to be progressed and produced (let us know if you're interested in partnering us on this!)
  6. More moments like the Hack, where brilliant minds are given the opportunity to focus on their passion for making education better.