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Sesame Street gets STEAMy, for a cause

Have you heard the latest educational buzzword? It’s STEAM, not STEM, and Sesame Street has been onto it for years.

The additional ‘A’ stands for ‘arts’. So, altogether, the acronym reads: Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics. Early STEAM advocate Georgette Yakman, said, in 2006, that the arts component includes liberal arts, languages, social studies, physical arts, fine arts and music.

Sesame Street’s bunch of furry, filmed puppets have championed this educational approach through their ‘Elmo, The Musical’ segments.

As part of its 43rd season, the famed show featured Elmo singing and dancing his way through numeracy. Take this segment, for example, which portrays Elmo as a seafarer, teaching subtraction through song, as he removes barnacles from an itchy, pink whale:

Ironclad educational value

Sure, Elmo dressed as a ship captain is cute, but, as well as this, the show’s educational prowess has been proven. A recent study found that “greater access to Sesame Street in the show’s early days [in 1969] led to improved early educational outcomes for [preschool-age] children.” Study authors, University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney, and Wellesley College economist Phillip B Levine, concluded that “…Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there…” This is only one of many studies that demonstrate the show’s educational merit.

STEAM, in the form of Sesame Street or otherwise, has long been part of the American educational sphere, yet the concept only began to gain traction in Australia in the past few years. Sydney’s International Grammar School, for instance, appointed a ‘STEAM Innovator’ last year. Another example: Professor Peter Taylor of Murdoch University presented on STEAM at this week’s ACER Research Conference.

In our country’s early learning space, STEAM’s older cousin, STEM, has only recently pervaded preschools. STEAM, although often inadvertently taught through regular preschool activities, like those involving music or play, is likely next up on the preschool curriculum agenda. But how important is it, anyway?

STEAM a load of hot air?

STEAM may sound inconsequential, but according to experts, it isn’t. There are two main schools of thought that speak to its significance. One, as articulated by Anna Feldman, a research associate at Future Tense, is that adding arts into the STEM mix makes students more engaged in stereotypically dry, technical subjects, and also fosters innovation in these fields through artistic creativity.

The second school rejects the arts as creative, STEM as non-creative dichotomy. Instead, proponents say arts are an important supplement to STEM because they are essential to the human experience. David Rothkopf, editor and chief executive of Foreign Policy, made an impassioned plea for STEAM education in this vein on his organisation’s eponymous website:

“We need to invest in arts education, along with science and tech education, because it produces well-rounded students; because it produces more humane people; because it protects our cultural heritage and enables students to understand some of the great creations that have shaped the growth of civilisation; because the arts play a big role in our economies.”

Studies on Sesame Street have confirmed that, no matter which school of thought prevails, STEAM is a entertaining, evidence-based educational tool for children. For further proof, look no further than the fact that they (and you) will likely be singing the arithmetic-loaded  Barnacle Subtraction Song for days.

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