As interest in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) continues to grow, a chapter in a new book presents information on how to bring the arts to STEM fields. The chapter outlines a creative exercise that used picture books to help first-year college students explore their ideas, beliefs, and humanistic impulses regarding their future majors. The exercise also allowed students to examine how representation in children’s books, combined with social class, race, and access, can limit society’s vision of who can succeed in STEM fields.
The chapter, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), will be published in a forthcoming book, Writing STEAM: Composition, STEM, and a New Humanities. The book examines how writing instruction, scholarship, and program administration can bring STEM and the humanities together in creative and beneficial ways.
“We present a meaningful and replicable case study in which college students at a technical institution explored their chosen area of study by creating a children’s picture book,” says Rebekah Fitzsimmons, assistant teaching professor of professional communication at CMU’s Heinz College, who coauthored the chapter. “By pairing this exercise of artistic expression and storytelling with first-year writing lessons like audience awareness, diction, and information organization, this assignment fused students’ interest in STEM with lessons in communication needed to be effective in those fields.”
Fitzsimmons taught the course in her previous position at Georgia Tech, in which students produced a 32-page nonfiction children’s picture book focused on STEM subjects. The students could write about their area of study, an author or significant scientific figure, or a STEM-related event, and had to focus their book to children from kindergarten to second grade.
During the course, the students engaged in a range of assignments, including examining scientific discourse in children’s literature and attending workshops on skills like papermaking. They also “tested” their picture books with K-2 students at a local elementary school, once midway through their writing and once when they had finished. This required the college students to “translate” complex scientific concepts to a nonexpert audience, and it provided feedback that helped the college students improve their final drafts.
The feedback that was most significant, though the authors suggest it was not clearly articulated, was related to representation. Fitzsimmons had raised the fact that children’s authors and illustrators, as well as non-animal characters in picture books, are typically White, and that in the context of STEM, the lack of women and people of color might suggest to children that these populations do not enter or succeed in STEM fields.
But even in a context as diverse as the student body at Georgia Tech, some students pushed back against the idea that diversity was necessary in picture books and were unconvinced that children might be affected by the identities of the main characters in the books they read.
College students’ views changed after they visited the local elementary school, which was predominantly Black. The enthusiastic reactions of the youngsters to books about scientists and innovators who looked like them, many of which were written and read by college students of color from diverse socioeconomic, international, and cultural backgrounds, seemed to affect many of the college students profoundly. As a result, many of the picture books that had been populated by White characters were redrawn to reflect diverse racial and ethnic appearances.
At the end of the term, many students said the assignment had challenged them to understand their field of study more deeply and prepared them to better explain the work they were pursuing to nonexpert audiences.
The chapter provides an overview of a college course that incorporates STEM into core writing requirements, adding the A (or arts) to STEM to become STEAM. It also offers ideas on how to expand the course in collaboration with others. For example, institutions with visual arts programs might consider cross-listing a writing and illustration course. Schools with teacher-training programs or library science programs could integrate the “testing” element into existing partnerships with local schools.
“In developing an artistic pathway for students to explore their budding areas of expertise while sharing their joy and passion for their work with others, this picture book project melds the elements of STEAM into a useful, rigorous, and fun project for first-year writing courses with benefits to the students and the community that last far beyond the college classroom,” says Tamara Pearson, then associate director of school and community engagement at the Center for Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing at Georgia Tech, who coauthored the chapter and organized the readings to young students.
Support for the course described in the chapter was provided by the Georgia Tech Serve-Learn-Sustain office.