Oct 25 2012

The Art and Science of a STEM-Driven Curriculum

Two teachers reveal how the Dayton Regional STEM School in Ohio is making the arts a core component of its technology-centric instruction.

As its name indicates, the Dayton Regional STEM School dedicates much of its curriculum to the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. But the project-based learning model the school embraces does far more than that, emphasizing through highly integrated, inquiry-driven instruction that no single ­discipline stands on its own.

While many programs teach the core subjects independently, our school aims to structure units around problems that require solutions spanning multiple content areas — including the arts. We see the arts as an avenue for students to ­express themselves ­creatively; explore and understand the world from different perspectives; make new connections with content; and demonstrate their learning in concrete, hands-on ways. We give our students opportunities to experiment, take risks and fail so that they might ­revise, ­refine and discover new paths to success — something that artists do as a matter of course.

By Design

Efforts to integrate all disciplines within the STEM curriculum have ­inspired our teachers to think about content in new ways. We have ­discovered that artistic and scientific processes have much in common.

Curiosity drives both artistic and scientific ventures, sparking for their participants an ongoing journey of brainstorming, hypo­thesizing, testing, critiquing and refining. Often, both artists and scientists dedicate their life's work to tackling a particular theme or challenge. Scientists typically approach a problem with guiding principles; artists have more freedom in their experiments, and that, too, can lead to discoveries and innovations.

The intersection of art and science in an educational setting can be a rich learning experience for students as they investigate the world through the lenses of both art and science. A fine example of this is a cross-­curricular project in which Dayton Regional STEM School 10th-grade biology ­students create watercolor renderings of cells. Because form (or structure) and function are unifying themes in both science and art, it's perfectly natural for students to investigate cell structure and function using both scientific and artistic methods.

For this activity, students strive to understand the similarities, ­differences and functions of human cells. After researching various cell types and then examining ­samples of each type under a ­microscope, students compare the microscopic images they've seen with fine-art renderings of similar cells. Next, they use ­watercolors to paint ­accurate ­illustrations of the cell types they've examined, ­filtered through the lens of their own artistic interpretation.

We were excited to witness the ­connectivity of our respective ­disciplines in practice. It was the cross-curricular idea of "form and function" that incited our collabo­ration in the first place, after all.

It's important to give students ­opportunities to function as they might be expected to in real-life ­situations. Integrated, project-based learning through the arts encourages creative thinking processes that ­emulate real-world problems and professional situations in which ­individuals are challenged to think critically, solve problems and generate innovative solutions.


  • Talk with other teachers.
  • Teach what you love.
  • Be flexible.
  • Don't force it.
  • Be willing to take risks, to fail and to learn from your mistakes.