The Way We Teach

The Value of STEAM in Girls' Education

The Way We Teach

A series of articles and posts about the academic program at Miss Hall's School.

The Value of STEAM in Girls' Education

By Christopher M. Himes, Ph.D.,
Director of Engineering and Technology Innovation

-Adapted from the Fall 2016 issue of Columns. See the full issue here.
As I begin my first year as Director of Engineering and Technology Innovation at Miss Hall's, the feeling is exceptionally positive as I join the Miss Hall’s community. Collectively, we are experiencing growth by launching the department, and we moved last month into Linn Hall. As the coursework in engineering and computer science gets underway, we are also making a significant commitment to the development of STEAM initiatives. STEAM, in very literal sense, is the combination of science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Building off the synthesis of STEM, the STEAM movement highlights the similarities among the practices and processes of these various areas of study. STEAM places emphasis on the benefits of intersectionality in education resulting in creation, exploration, and understanding.
Historically, scientists and inventors, such as Leonardo da Vinci, were known for their artistic and creative accomplishments. Some even envisioned the application of technologies that did not exist yet, as is the case with Ada Lovelace, who is credited with developing the first computer program in the 1840s. One of my favorite STEAM images comes from the journals of Charles Darwin, the 19th century naturalist who proposed natural selection as the process of evolution. Darwin writes “I think” on a page in his journal and follows the statement with a drawing of a bifurcating “tree.” Darwin’s thought and sketch created a central theory that revolutionized and unified biology. It is in these examples that we understand the intersections of art and science and the possibilities that lie ahead for MHS.
In my eyes, STEAM is a teaching philosophy and an approach to addressing many educational concerns such as student motivation, interdisciplinary problem solving, and access. In first few years of the 20th century, Jules Henri Poincaré, an engineer, mathematician, and science philosopher spoke to the motivation of scientists to study nature as that “he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful.” Poincaré highlights that beauty of the natural world is the inspiration to understand it. Interestingly, the language of the scientist here is named as “he,” which was certainly a common occurrence of that time and lingers in our contemporary culture. Additionally, it is important to understand that STEAM emphasizes the many modes of generating knowledge and the value of interdisciplinary work to understand complex questions such as: what is the sociological and biological impact of climate change; what are the ethical concerns regarding artificial intelligence; and what are the outcomes of an increasingly virtual social paradigm?
I often mention to students that the greatest questions facing humanity will not be answered by a single body of knowledge or practice but by a combination of fields and disciplines. At MHS STEAM offers us interdisciplinary exploration in courses and provides an access point for young women and girls, who have traditionally been marginalized in science and technology. The National Science Foundation highlights that the aptitude between men and women in STEM are equal, however women remain underrepresented in many these fields. As of 2009, nearly 90% of engineering degrees in the United States were held by men. Further, between 2008 and 2014 only a marginal increase occurred in the number of engineering degrees conferred to women. Among the multitude of reasons for this pattern is the reoccurring, and incorrect, message that girls and women are unable, uninterested, and, in some instances, unwelcomed in STEM.
As educators, it is our responsibility to challenge and discuss social norms. We must assure girls, and boys, that these fields are open to all individuals regardless of gender, and we must continually reinforce this message. At Miss Hall’s School, we want to support students to contribute boldly and creatively to the common good. As Director of Engineering and Technology Innovation, I am committed to the application of the school’s mission to the study, production, and use of technology. Therefore, we will empower our students to pursue their interests in engineering and technology while supporting innovation needed to change the idea of a scientist, or engineer, from the image of a ‘he’ to include ‘she’ and ‘they.’
In a culture that establishes barriers to young women in STEM, STEAM offers us the opportunity to provide greater access for our students. With the newly launched Department of Engineering and Technology, and working collaboratively in the Grace Murray Hopper Innovation Lab in Linn Hall, MHS will provide its students with the vision to see themselves as the producers of technology, the gumption to be innovators, the interpersonal efficacy to support young women and other underrepresented groups, and the voice to challenge social norms that produce inequities in STEM education.
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Located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, Miss Hall's School is a private, college preparatory, boarding and day high school for girls in grades 9-12.
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