U.S. education is all about STEM training these days, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.
Educators believe the focus will better prepare students for the future, when it’s projected most jobs will have some link to STEM subjects.
But STEM programs aren't without controversy. There is pushback from some parents who say school shouldn't just be about job training, but also about a broad education that can include other subjects such as music, philosophy and the arts.
In response, one public library in the Washington suburbs is adding arts to the STEM curriculum. In its STEAMtivity program, the "A" stand for arts, and the "-tivity" suffix is shorthand for creativity.
Tools for learning
On one recent evening, children ages 8 through 12 gather at Beatley Central Library in this northern Virginia city. They are building structures with Strawbees, a toy construction kit that lets them connect straws to each other. They’ve been given materials but not step-by-step instructions.
Fourth-grader Michael Guysinger, 10, says he likes the library’s hands-on activities "because they're very creative. There's no instructions. You can do really your own way. You don’t have to do this or that."
The library offers creative materials and computer science programs to spark youngsters’ imagination, explains Diana Price, youth services manager.
"They involve different technologies, such as LEGO Mindstorms robots, Makey Makeys" – invention kits with USB cable plugs – "iPad minis, Strawbees that we had today and also some littleBits snap circuits," Price says. "And some more kind of low-tech, arts-focused programs such as 'make your own musical instrument.' "
Building products and confidence
"Most of our programs are open-ended, which means that children can create any kind of product they want and take the path to creating that product anyway they want to go," Price says. "Because there's not really a way to fail, we hope that this will make children more confident and feel more positive about science, technology, engineering, arts and math.”
At the end of the two-hour session, Michael shows off his scientific structure.
"I made a futuristic spaceship called Richard's spaceship," he says. "At first I thought I was making a house, and I was just like 'this is going to turn out horrible,' but it turned out to be really good as a spaceship."
Second-grader Munira Khalif got her inspiration from nature. "I first made the flower, and then I thought I should make the sun because I like how the sun goes on top of the flower," the 7-year-old says.
The STEAMtivity program is part of the library’s outreach to low-income families and immigrants.
Mohamed Khalif, a Somali immigrant, brought Munira and another daughter to the program.
“They could not wait to come back today," says Khalif. "It opens their eyes and make them think outside the box and do something that they normally don’t do at home or a playground.”
Michael's mother, Yvette Guysinger, also brought his sister.
"My kids are home-schooled so they really enjoy coming and learning things that we don't have in the house. And it gives them the opportunity to use their creativity and their imagination to come up with different ideas and things to do," Guysinger says.
Price says programs that allows children to work independently, and also as a team, will help them learn skills they can use in all areas of their lives.