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Promoting Executive Function with STEAM

Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m just not creative,” or “Gosh, I wish I were better at math”? How about considering yourself to be either left-brained (analytical) or right-brained (creative)? It can be tempting to think of science and art as opposite ends of a spectrum, but evidence from neuroscience shows us that brain regions are highly interconnected in how they function. So, instead of left brain/right brain, researchers emphasize neural networks and connectivity across the whole brain. An increasingly popular teaching approach called STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) draws on current developmental neuroscience research to promote analytical thinking and creativity.

The Promise of STEAM

In a STEAM approach to learning, the arts are incorporated into intentional STEM instruction to create a meaningful, hands-on, integrated experience that helps science concepts come alive in fun and creative ways. In these environments, the goal is for students to actively solve problems, take ownership of their learning, and apply content in real-world contexts. They allow teachers to target multiple content areas at once, which can help promote critical thinking, creativity, and deepen understanding as students make connections on their own.

Some benefits of STEAM learning include: 

  • Collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving
  • Students shape their own learning
  • Students develop a voice and choice
  • Content is relevant, meaningful, and connected to students’ own lives
  • Teachers can teach and assess one or more of these skills

 

How is STEAM related to Executive Function?

Executive Function (EF) refers to brain-based skills that help us manage our attention, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These skills include working memory (holding information in mind), cognitive flexibility (switching between rules and strategies), and inhibitory control (stopping an automatic response). We are not born with strong EF skills, but they can be strengthened through intentional practices. One way to help students improve their EF is through a STEAM approach to learning.

The key to STEAM is to use creative and hands-on activities to teach science, mathematics, and technology content. In a traditional biology class, for example, students might simply label the parts of a plant cell on a worksheet. In a STEAM biology class, students might collaborate to identify different parts of the cell under a microscope and draw (or build if you want to go 3-D) what they see. Whereas the former relies mostly on matching and memorization, the latter helps students practice their EF skills in a number of different ways:

  • Collaboration with peers uses inhibitory control as students need to wait their turn to look under the microscope and cognitive flexibility when students hear another student’s idea about how to approach the assignment that is different from their own.
  • Students need to use their working memory when they hold in mind the image from under the microscope and translate it to their own representation.
  • By looking at a real-world example of a plant cell, students will need to be flexible in their thinking – a nucleus will not look identical to the one they’ve seen in a textbook! Encouraging multiple perspectives develops this multi-dimensional thinking. 

 

Using a STEAM Approach to Improve Executive Function Skills

Not only do STEAM activities use EF skills so students can directly practice them, but STEAM also produces a learning environment that is optimal for strengthening EF. Research in child development has shown that three of the most important principles for EF practice are (1) consistent challenge, (2) diversity of practice, and (3) student engagement.

  • STEAM education consistently challenges students as they actively try to solve real-world problems. Rather than simply memorizing the formula for the area of a square, for example, students might be tasked with figuring out whether enough plants can fit in the community garden to feed all the residents. The problem can be adapted to think about a whole state rather than just one community to increase the level of challenge.
  • We are more likely to use our EF skills in diverse settings if we practice using them in different situations. STEAM approaches are meant to move beyond the classroom. In one chemistry lesson, students might create a chemical reaction in the classroom by mixing together different substances and then apply this same lesson outside the classroom when they need to identify a naturally occurring chemical reaction in the real-world.
  •  The inclusion of art and creativity in STEM can make even the most mundane assignment more enjoyable. Having students design a board game that takes players through the life cycle of water is bound to be more engaging than a teacher giving a presentation on the same topic. Importantly, having fun at school can also alleviate student stress, which is another way to support EF skills because stress is often thought of as the enemy of EF.

 

Additional Resources 

If you are new to STEAM and want to learn more about how to use this approach in your classroom, check out these STEAM resources from Edutopia:

https://www.edutopia.org/article/STEAM-resources 

If you would like to learn more about implementing Executive Function training for students into your classroom, check out our new Professional Development course Managing Your Classroom Through the Lens of Executive Function

Wait, there's more!

We write articles regularly detailing our research, and giving our insight into the exciting world of Executive Function. Check out some of our other blog posts to read more about the impact EF has on our lives, and much more!
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