Westport debates the ‘A’ in STEAM: Many continue to debate the balance between fine arts programs and engineering curriculum


The Westport Board of Education voted to implement a STEM-based curriculum for all grades in both Coleytown and Bedford middle schools on Dec. 2, 2013 in the hopes that it would foster  a passion for hands-on creativity in STEM areas.

STEM is a series of courses that are focused on the application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  Specifically, after discussing the proposed STEM program over three meetings, the Board of Education [BOE] decided to institute a design and engineering course that would meet once a week in sixth and seventh grades and twice a week in eighth grade.

To make room in the schedule for these classes, the administration cut the eighth grade drama/presentation skills class and sixth grade general music courses. Additionally, to make room for STEM and other needed core classes, the PTA was asked to take less time out of the school year with PTA activities, which resulted in cutting art-related programming, including one of three school-wide Cultural Arts performances and some time from the ArtSmart sessions.

Many people, including members of the Westport BOE, questioned the decision to proceed with these STEM-based changes at the expense of drama and music, and felt that the district should integrate the arts and go full STEAM ahead. Elliott Landon, Superintendent of Westport Public Schools, explained at the Dec. 2 meeting that the goal will be to integrate the arts back into the STEM curriculum.  He noted, “It should be STEAM rather than STEM, but you can’t make it STEAM until you integrate the arts, and we aren’t there yet.”  When asked why we aren’t “there yet,” Landon could not be reached to comment.

According to Elaine Whitney, the current Chair of the BOE, the new STEM program was not intended to deemphasize the arts in any way; rather, their intention of the Dec. 2 meeting was “centered on increasing cross-disciplinary linkages between engineering and design and the arts…enhancing both rather than reducing either.”  As Whitney later said, “[The arts are] a source of pride for the district and our entire community.”

Ryan Mather, a current senior at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and President of the RISD STEAM student group, stressed the importance of having a well-rounded curriculum. “What STEAM is all about,” Mather said, “is challenging the idea that these disciplines are mutually exclusive and creating ways for them to reinforce each other.”

Now, at the start of the 2014-2015 school year, Westport administrators also agree that they should go forward with integrating the arts back into the curriculum. Landon, a prior proponent of STEM, said that “all students should enjoy the opportunity to study and be engaged with the humanities, math, science, music, art and the performing arts.”

James D’Amico, Director of Secondary Education for Westport, shares Landon’s views about the importance of STEAM. “There is no question that students’ development is enhanced by the comprehensive study of subjects that call on different disciplines,” D’Amico said.

Students are also in favor of STEAM.  Katie Zhou ’14, pre-med student at Duke University and national -award-winning violinist, said, “There’s no one of the two that’s more important than the other.  I actually consider myself both a STEM person and a music person, so it’s hard for me to decide.”

In a similar manner, Arun Soni ’16, a member of the five-person differential equations class that is new to the Staples curriculum this year, said, “People have different talents, and if they are never exposed to the arts they won’t be able to make the best out of the real world.”  Soni, whose interests are more STEM-oriented, recognizes the importance of having a balanced curriculum.

Going forward, according to Whitney, the BOE has decided to “build upon STEM and explore integration with the arts.”  The administration is scheduled to present its recommendations for reintegrating the arts to turn STEM into STEAM at the Nov. 10, 2014 meeting.