Donna Tavano: Full STEAM Ahead

This column STEMs from my need to advocate for art and creativity that does not necessarily involve numbers and engineering. As you may know, the acronym STEM translates to science, technology, engineering and math. Schools have gone bonkers in this educational direction. Presicent Obama stressed that since the U.S. was losing ground worldwide in these categories, and girls and minorities were being “left behind,” we needed to change our focus and push the concept. As not every child is naturally gifted in tech areas, and it seems like the arts have suddenly become second class citizens, Rhode Island School of Design and other schools have championed the idea of STEAM, which throws art into the mix, formally embracing its value as well. 

When I grew up in the '50s and '60s, Massachusetts schools were forward thinking in math, science and the visual and expressive arts. We had science fairs in junior high school, which I won one year with an intensive forensic exhibit on fingerprinting. It was the era of space exploration. My husband, same era, is still impassioned about all things that fly in the big sky and beyond—me, not so much. I live happily in a world of words, music and art. From kindergarten on, I constructed intricate paper villages, stitched sock stick horses and built tree houses in the woods without adult interference. Every day was a day of self discovery and creation.

I excelled in and enjoyed reading, writing, language and history—math and science were almost my undoing. After my sixth grade trauma with “New Math” I trod warily, wobbling uneasily into any number endeavor. Later, at boarding school, we had one of the first room-size Dartmouth computers. We had to learn the “language;” (riotously random to me) sequences of dots, dashes, parentheses, slashes, etc. It almost slashed me out of school, as I always managed to omit one crucial dot or comma, so my solution never came. A short year or so later, I managed to survive algebra with the help of a math tutor, who spent the summer living on a sailboat partying and daily afflicting me with his atrocious hangover breath. I must note that in all these years I have never used the subject. I limped painfully through science, which piqued my curiosity but slayed me with its quagmires of graphs, grids, statistics and formulas.

Art and creativity saved me from the perils of school, from the tedium and meaninglessness of rote memorization of dates and places. When we studied history, we chose projects that related to the subject: recreating clothing and hairstyles of the 1700s, painting wall-size murals of pyramids and hieroglyphics when learning about Egypt, and creatively forming a society from scratch as we studied world culture. Teachers gave us our lead and always awarded points for our inventiveness. If you colored outside the lines it was fine, as long as you could defend and articulate your action. English essays were given a grade, averaged between one number for creativity and one for grammar/mechanics.

As an exchange student, one of our sons attended a magnet school in Finland for his senior year in high school. They have institutions that concentrate in music and arts, languages, sports, etc. The schools offer a full schedule of normal subjects, allotting more time and emphasis for the specialty the student has chosen. As each child possesses natural talents and abilities, it makes sense to allow students to follow their interests, rather than forcing would-be artistic types into unforgiving math molds. Finland has no mandated standardized tests except for one at the end of high school, grade schoolers enjoy 15 minute outdoor recesses after each lesson, there is no homework for younger students, and instructors are more concerned about imparting useful knowledge than teaching what will appear on a state or national test. Ninety-three percent of the students graduate from vocational or high school, 66 percent goes on to higher education and Finland spends 33 percent less than the U.S. to accomplish this.

The arts permeate our lives. Artists and designers create our clothes, music and television and the furniture we sit on. Proofs and numbers develop scientists and engineers who can send us to far off planets or cure diseases, not bad things at all, but those necessary scientists and engineers can only succeed in concert with artistic and differently creative people who can communicate ideas and emotions through art, music, and writing and connect us as the human family we are. It is yin and yang, right and left brain, all talents combining into the whole, which will help us survive and, just as important, help us want to survive. We are all familiar with the glimpse of the future portrayed by artists and writers—extra terrestrials or future humans with oversized heads, large eyes, atrophied bodies and long tapered fingers, seemingly suited for little else but an ability to poke at devices. Hopefully, our appreciation for music, literature and art will not be relegated to a nostalgic memory.

Massachusetts Art Week is being celebrated at the end of April. The Harwich Cultural Center will be offering workshops and community projects. Watch for it, participate, learn, experience and create. Then share it with all of us in your own way.