Abstract

The authors share an emerging analytical approach to designing and studying STEAM programs that focuses on how programs integrate the respective epistemic practices—the ways in which knowledge is constructed—of science and art. They share the rationale for moving beyond surface features of STEAM programs (e.g. putting textiles and electronics on the same table) to the discipline-specific ways in which participants engage in creative inquiry and production. They share a brief example from a public STEAM event to demonstrate the ways in which this approach can foster reflection and intentionality in the design and implementation of STEAM programs.

There is a long history of art-science integration in education, particularly in out-of-school learning programs such as summer camps, after-school offerings and public engagement events. Today, these types of programs often rebrand themselves as STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) programs. Some programs integrate art and science in surface ways, e.g. decorating bridges engineered from paper straws or listening to mini-lectures about color mixing in a painting class. Others adopt deeper approaches, often toward some greater transdisciplinary purpose, such as creating museum exhibitions or conducting community journalism.

Out-of-school learning programs can range from a yearlong to a weeklong time span, to more ephemeral (hour- or even minutes-long) “public engagement” activities occurring on street corners or at community festivals (Fig. 1). Because they are designed to appeal to people who may not already identify as productive STEM learners, STEAM programs are argued to have particular salience for communities contending with significant systemic barriers to STEM learning [1], e.g. underresourced schools, limited access to high-quality out-of-school programs or strong cultural messaging. Research on STEAM programs has demonstrated that such programs can engage young people in exploring ideas, developing competencies and finding personal direction [25]. But the evidence remains thin on if and how they deepen learners’ long-term engagement with and understanding in the disciplines. Driven by STEM funders, many STEAM programs contort themselves to demonstrate impact in areas such as test scores, enrollment in STEM academic majors or even interest in or pursuit of STEM careers.

The mathematics of tic-tac-toe, National Math Festival, Washington, D.C., 2015.

Fig. 1.
The mathematics of tic-tac-toe, National Math Festival, Washington, D.C., 2015.
Fig. 1.
The mathematics of tic-tac-toe, National Math Festival, Washington, D.C., 2015.

We define STEAM as the integration of disciplines from the arts and design with the STEM disciplines. We leave undiscussed here our views on the extent to which the history of the term STEAM belies its political versus its pedagogical origins (but see Mejias et al. [6]). We note that the term STEM similarly had political origins before evolving into a field of pedagogical activity; it today undergoes similar contestation in terms of if and how it is a disciplinary phenomenon versus an expedience. Nevertheless, to strengthen rather than subvert current STEAM programs, we posit a need to delve beneath the surface dimensions of art and science (e.g. the materials used, the terminology provided) to attend to the integration of the epistemic, or knowledge-building, practices of the respective disciplines [7].

Epistemics

In 2012, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences issued a framework for K–12 science education that identified eight epistemic practices of science, later parsed into three clusters of activity: investigating, sensemaking and critiquing practices [8,9]. At about the same time, two learning scientists described seven arts practices, clustered into technical/critical, creative and ethical practices [10]. (See the online supplementary materials for a brief discussion of the practice turn in science and science education.) In our study, we build on these frameworks (see Table 1) to explore what epistemic practices look like in public engagement events styled as STEAM events. A leading question we explore is whether there are truly integrated epistemic practices of STEAM or if STEAM programs are more likely to interweave specific artistic or scientific practices at different times and for different reasons.

Table 1.

Framework for Epistemic Practices in STEAM

STEM practicesConjectured STeAM practicesArts practices
Exploring Asking questions/defining problems
Planning and carrying out investigations
Using mathematical and computational thinking 
Noticing and questioning
Exploring materiality
Defining the problem space 
Deep noticing
Deconstructing component elements and their respective meanings 
Meaning-Making Developing and using models
Analyzing and interpreting data
Constructing explanations/designing solutions 
Producing tentative representations
Conducting principled iterations/revisions
Engaging multiple modalities
Finding relevance 
Applying artistic principles to augment meaning
Designing interrelations within and across multiple sign systems
Referencing or combining existing works and ideas 
Critiquing Arguing from evidence/peer review
Evaluating and communicating findings 
Critical historicity; Hacking the ideas of others
Cultivating dissent
Holding commitments to standards of the field
Sharing results/“audiencing” 
Critical historicity; negotiating what constitutes a “good” project
Given a particular artistic goal, evaluating how successfully this goal has been met 
STEM practicesConjectured STeAM practicesArts practices
Exploring Asking questions/defining problems
Planning and carrying out investigations
Using mathematical and computational thinking 
Noticing and questioning
Exploring materiality
Defining the problem space 
Deep noticing
Deconstructing component elements and their respective meanings 
Meaning-Making Developing and using models
Analyzing and interpreting data
Constructing explanations/designing solutions 
Producing tentative representations
Conducting principled iterations/revisions
Engaging multiple modalities
Finding relevance 
Applying artistic principles to augment meaning
Designing interrelations within and across multiple sign systems
Referencing or combining existing works and ideas 
Critiquing Arguing from evidence/peer review
Evaluating and communicating findings 
Critical historicity; Hacking the ideas of others
Cultivating dissent
Holding commitments to standards of the field
Sharing results/“audiencing” 
Critical historicity; negotiating what constitutes a “good” project
Given a particular artistic goal, evaluating how successfully this goal has been met 

We begin with an understanding that, when done well, programs that integrate arts and science can spark delight, curiosity, anxiety and other intertwined forms of emotion and cognition that heighten attention and engagement with ideas and questions (Fig. 2). Such approaches are often missing from classroom science and may or may not be present in school or out-of-school STEAM programs.

Visitors to Sweet Shoppe, an urban pop-up exploring the unexpected sides of the stuff we call “sweet,” delight in a demonstration differentiating the most preferred levels of sugar in adults and children in Brooklyn, 2017.

Fig. 2.
Visitors to Sweet Shoppe, an urban pop-up exploring the unexpected sides of the stuff we call “sweet,” delight in a demonstration differentiating the most preferred levels of sugar in adults and children in Brooklyn, 2017.
Fig. 2.
Visitors to Sweet Shoppe, an urban pop-up exploring the unexpected sides of the stuff we call “sweet,” delight in a demonstration differentiating the most preferred levels of sugar in adults and children in Brooklyn, 2017.

We see two main benefits of adopting an epistemic approach to studying STEAM programs: First, we posit that learning in STEAM programs can be strengthened. For example, the arts practice of critical historicity (i.e. critically examining an artwork in relationship to its historical moment and the moments before it), if better incorporated into STEAM programs, can make the usually invisible (to the nonscientist) process of peer review more visible to learners, helping the public better understand how scientific knowledge is constructed. Likewise, better integrating the science practice of evidence-based reasoning could potentially enrich learning in STEAM programs. Second, an epistemic approach to STEAM can allow more proximal documentation of program impacts, reducing pressure on programs to resort to test scores and other measures developed for different purposes.

Example

To illustrate, we share early data from our study of Guerilla Science, an organization based in London and New York that designs immersive storyworlds in which scientists engage the public [11]. Guerilla Science's programs are staged at music festivals, county fairs, nightclubs and other settings where young people are not actively seeking out science engagement but rather stumble across it and choose to participate (Fig. 3). (See online supplementary materials for more detail.)

Enticing new audiences, National Math Festival, Washington, D.C., 2015.

Fig. 3.
Enticing new audiences, National Math Festival, Washington, D.C., 2015.
Fig. 3.
Enticing new audiences, National Math Festival, Washington, D.C., 2015.

Our study documents how the epistemic practices central to participation in Guerilla Science storyworlds (Fig. 4)—e.g. practices engaged during blindfolded sensory speed dating (neuroscience), eating at an insect diner (environmental sustainability) or booking a vacation to the moons of Jupiter (physics and space science)—lead to new questions and understandings. We share an example from the Dutchess County Fair, 100 miles north of New York City. Over six days, 400,000 visitors walk through barns filled with chickens, cows and goats; admire the products of local quilters and bakers; and take rides on Ferris wheels and carousels. They line up at food stands serving deep-fried onions, hamburgers and cotton candy. The fair is attended by local communities from all walks of life, including migrant agricultural workers, tradespeople, local professionals and vacationing families.

Exploring love and neuroscience, 2017 Oregon Eclipse Festival.

Fig. 4.
Exploring love and neuroscience, 2017 Oregon Eclipse Festival.
Fig. 4.
Exploring love and neuroscience, 2017 Oregon Eclipse Festival.

In August 2018, Guerilla Science installed a retro diner called the Entomophatron in one of the barns. Actors, scientists and artists of multiple gender identities, dressed in pink polka-dotted dresses and steeped in information about insects and the future of food, staffed the Entomophatron (Fig. 5). County fairgoers who stumbled upon this unlikely sight approached the diner counter curiously, if tentatively, enticed by free bags of popcorn seasoned with agave worm salt. Once seated at a counter stool, “customers” were handed a menu and invited to take a blind taste test, comparing a bean nacho chip to a cricket nacho chip. Next, they were invited to eat roasted crickets, then mealworms, then “ants on a log” (dried ants sprinkled over celery and peanut butter) and, finally, a handful of roasted ants with no chaser (Fig. 6).

Two actors at the Entomophatron, 2018.

Fig. 5.
Two actors at the Entomophatron, 2018.
Fig. 5.
Two actors at the Entomophatron, 2018.

The Entomophatron menu.

Fig. 6.
The Entomophatron menu.
Fig. 6.
The Entomophatron menu.

Over three days we recorded 48 interactions involving 134 participants. Laughter, curiosity or disgust (feigned or not) were starting points for most of the participants. Interactions were all under 30 minutes, with an average of about 12. While they ate, participants engaged in dialogue with the actors/servers, who both maintained the storyworld of the diner experience and wove in information about insects as food. Much of this process was performative on the participants’ part as they engaged in the activities in front of their friends or family members, some of whom snacked along with them, others of whom watched in horror (Fig. 7).

Daring diner at the Entomophatron.

Fig. 7.
Daring diner at the Entomophatron.
Fig. 7.
Daring diner at the Entomophatron.

Table 2 transcribes an interaction where an adult male “customer” (C), who has been observing four schoolgirls interact with the female actor/server (S) at the counter, leans in and points to the “ants on a log.”

Table 2.

Transcript of an exchange at the Entomophatron

I’ll try this. It looks good. Makes initial positive contact. [Reaches over and picks up a piece of ant-covered celery.] Makes initial positive contact. 
They’re good! Double-voicing; affirms his observation. 
A protein source. Indicates prior knowledge. 
Great protein source! Double-voicing; recognizes his knowledge. 
Yeah. [Nods and swallows the celery.] What else do you have here? Suggests willingness to participate. 
Join us! I’d be happy to go over the menu with you! Reasserts the storyworld via server role. 
Okay. Enters the storyworld by sitting down at the counter. 
Since you started out with this, we could just let that go. . . . [Points to dish with ants on a log.] We have roasted mealworms and roasted crickets. If it was me. . . . These [Points to mealworms.] have a pumpkin flavor . . . and these [Points to crickets.] have more of a nutty flavor. Which would you like to . . . Marks differences between the insects. Analogues to everyday experiences (pumpkin and nut flavors). 
I’ll try one of each.  
10 Awesome. Here you are. [Drops mealworm into his palm.]  
11 Mmmm. [Tosses mealworm into his mouth, nods in affirmation.]  
12 These [Points to mealworms.] are much better—I should be giving you— Recognizes she has deviated from the storyworld’s menu sequence. 
13 —Delicious. [Interrupts.]  
14 —the cricket first because these [Points to mealworms.] are better. So I can give you more mealworms if you like after.  
15 That’s good too. [Refers to cricket.] A little bitter. Those are really good. [Points to mealworms.] Communicates his discernment of difference. 
16 Yeah, these are really good. Would you like some more?  
17 Okay. So they’re roasted? [Extends his palm.] Rubs mealworms to explore texture. 
18 Roasted, lightly seasoned.  
19 This is great. I gotta get a picture of this. [Puts one into his mouth. Takes out camera.] Documents experience. 
20 I also have a regular bag of agave popcorn.  
21 I have it already.  
22 Oh, perfect.  
23 That’s how you got me in here, the popcorn.  
24 Would you like to try the ants on their own, because the peanut butter overpowers it?  
25 Okay. So these are just natural? You didn’t flavor them? [Pops a fistful of ants into his mouth.] Communicates his discernment of difference. 
26 No, roasted ants: That’s their own flavor. I’ll show you the container. They release an acid that they use as a self-defense mechanism. That’s what makes it tastes like . . . Explains the science. 
27 Pretty good. [Nods.]  
28 [Unintelligible]  
29 Thank you. Let me get a picture of this. These are great. [Takes a picture.] I saw a show where in the future, when there’s going to be food shortages, they’re gonna harvest insects like from the Amazon. Giant beetles and things and then you can eat them too. Responds to her scientific fact by indicating awareness of other science, including its social relevance. Continues to document. 
30 Well, that’s what we’re talking about. Like crickets. They turn feed into protein 12 times more efficiently than cattle. Moves from qualitative to quantitative facts. 
31 Uh-huh. Wow. [Photographs the jars.] Appreciates factual information. 
32 Yeah.  
33 I’ll get you in the picture too. [Takes more pictures.] Thank you. [Smiles at server and departs.] Displays emotional affect by commemorating experience with a photo. 
I’ll try this. It looks good. Makes initial positive contact. [Reaches over and picks up a piece of ant-covered celery.] Makes initial positive contact. 
They’re good! Double-voicing; affirms his observation. 
A protein source. Indicates prior knowledge. 
Great protein source! Double-voicing; recognizes his knowledge. 
Yeah. [Nods and swallows the celery.] What else do you have here? Suggests willingness to participate. 
Join us! I’d be happy to go over the menu with you! Reasserts the storyworld via server role. 
Okay. Enters the storyworld by sitting down at the counter. 
Since you started out with this, we could just let that go. . . . [Points to dish with ants on a log.] We have roasted mealworms and roasted crickets. If it was me. . . . These [Points to mealworms.] have a pumpkin flavor . . . and these [Points to crickets.] have more of a nutty flavor. Which would you like to . . . Marks differences between the insects. Analogues to everyday experiences (pumpkin and nut flavors). 
I’ll try one of each.  
10 Awesome. Here you are. [Drops mealworm into his palm.]  
11 Mmmm. [Tosses mealworm into his mouth, nods in affirmation.]  
12 These [Points to mealworms.] are much better—I should be giving you— Recognizes she has deviated from the storyworld’s menu sequence. 
13 —Delicious. [Interrupts.]  
14 —the cricket first because these [Points to mealworms.] are better. So I can give you more mealworms if you like after.  
15 That’s good too. [Refers to cricket.] A little bitter. Those are really good. [Points to mealworms.] Communicates his discernment of difference. 
16 Yeah, these are really good. Would you like some more?  
17 Okay. So they’re roasted? [Extends his palm.] Rubs mealworms to explore texture. 
18 Roasted, lightly seasoned.  
19 This is great. I gotta get a picture of this. [Puts one into his mouth. Takes out camera.] Documents experience. 
20 I also have a regular bag of agave popcorn.  
21 I have it already.  
22 Oh, perfect.  
23 That’s how you got me in here, the popcorn.  
24 Would you like to try the ants on their own, because the peanut butter overpowers it?  
25 Okay. So these are just natural? You didn’t flavor them? [Pops a fistful of ants into his mouth.] Communicates his discernment of difference. 
26 No, roasted ants: That’s their own flavor. I’ll show you the container. They release an acid that they use as a self-defense mechanism. That’s what makes it tastes like . . . Explains the science. 
27 Pretty good. [Nods.]  
28 [Unintelligible]  
29 Thank you. Let me get a picture of this. These are great. [Takes a picture.] I saw a show where in the future, when there’s going to be food shortages, they’re gonna harvest insects like from the Amazon. Giant beetles and things and then you can eat them too. Responds to her scientific fact by indicating awareness of other science, including its social relevance. Continues to document. 
30 Well, that’s what we’re talking about. Like crickets. They turn feed into protein 12 times more efficiently than cattle. Moves from qualitative to quantitative facts. 
31 Uh-huh. Wow. [Photographs the jars.] Appreciates factual information. 
32 Yeah.  
33 I’ll get you in the picture too. [Takes more pictures.] Thank you. [Smiles at server and departs.] Displays emotional affect by commemorating experience with a photo. 

We selected this example due to its representative nature as well as its short duration. In longer-term (e.g. weeklong, semester-long) STEAM programs, where program leaders might have predetermined learning goals or experiences planned for participants, we would expect to see more fully developed epistemic practices. But by studying shorter-term engagements, where learning goals and activities are more emergent, we can shed light on the different guises that epistemic practices can take, and, critically, provide insights into how such an analytical framework can illuminate the contributions of shorter-term arts-integrated public engagement events to the public's relationship with science, without having to use obtrusive tools such as pre/post surveys.

We found that, with some exceptions, “customers” at the counter tended to make short utterances, largely reacting to the prospect or the experience of eating an insect. The servers’ explanations were also short and generally met with expressions of interest but with little probing or counterargument. Thus, in this short excerpt, as in most, we find the epistemic practices of exploring and meaning-making but, notably, not critiquing.

For example, here, as in much of our data, the participant observed others at the counter for some time before deciding to join in. This careful noticing enabled him to monitor the emotional affect of those already eating the insects. The physical “theater” of the diner created a venue for observation—observers were able to watch other customers squirm, laugh and egg each other on. The physical theater also served as a tool for the actor/server, who used it to beckon new customers to take a seat and look at a menu.

We see the customer exploring the materiality or sensory dimensions of the different insects (Fig. 8)—contrasting the textures and tastes of the different critters (lines 9–19 and 25–27 in Table 2).

Mealworms with goat cheese, sun-dried tomato and fresh herbs.

Fig. 8.
Mealworms with goat cheese, sun-dried tomato and fresh herbs.
Fig. 8.
Mealworms with goat cheese, sun-dried tomato and fresh herbs.

In lines 3–4 of Table 2, the double-voiced dialogue shows that the customer is defining the problem space—that insects represent a significant protein source—which the server echoes, affirming and acknowledging his existing understanding. Later, in line 29, the customer will make it explicit that he understands the significance of the science.

In lines 26–31, the dialogue shifts to more meaning-making practices, where both customer and server begin to share explanations with one another, producing tentative representations of their understanding of the concepts and contexts being explored. In their brief back-and-forth they find the relevance of insect protein in a changing world. The performative aspects of this interaction might constitute a creative production, an imaginary world of server and customer talking about what's on the menu. The participant's use of his camera to document the experience (lines 19, 29, 31 and 33) may indicate an intention of further meaning-making, beyond the scope of the event itself, whether through posting and sharing via social media or through reflection at a later time.

We also see what is not here. The server asks few questions about what the customer might know or wonder about. There is no sense of critical historicity about insects as a food source (for example, if and how it intersects with cultural practices of vegetarianism). There is no discussion of how and why scientists have constructed knowledge about human protein consumption, nutrition, population growth and environmental sustainability. There is no critique or systematic comparison, that might reflect a commitment to standards of the scientific field, of the different insects consumed. We conjecture that shorter-term engagements, both for temporal and relationship/trust reasons, may not as readily afford critiquing practices (although they may be preparing participants for future critical engagement).

Early analysis of the data we collected at the Dutchess County Fair demonstrate the many ways in which the carnival aspects of the Guerilla Science event created the invitation for participants to relate their personal histories to the event's science focus. Initial disgust almost uniformly gave way to the exchange of ideas and questions. About one-third of coded utterances involved personal perspectives, ranging from wry comments about wishing to consume the ants invading their kitchen to memories of beetles that had been a delicacy in their youth in Mexico. These types of personal exchanges appear to contribute to sustained conversations, perhaps creating more time and opportunity for participants’ science learning and meaning-making.

Conclusion

The purpose of taking an epistemic view of STEAM programs is to understand if and how they can engage the public more deeply in the questions, processes and epistemologies of science and art in ways that are relevant to their lives. We posit that the theatrical aspects of the experience described above created a more inclusive, embodied and therefore personal invitation to engage in epistemic practices of investigation and sense-making. The dialogic nature of the experience helps us see how these practices lead to the exchange of ideas, histories and information.

Our research seeks to map existing and new practices in the STEAM programs we design and study and to determine if there are epistemic practices that are specific to STEAM. As we refine Table 1, we hope to develop tools that can help STEAM program leaders reflect on and be intentional about how their programs engage their audiences in epistemic practices. For example, the analysis presented here illuminated a paucity of critiquing practices in this particular event. In response, Guerilla Science leaders are developing new training approaches to prepare science communicators to more systematically engage audience members in critiquing practices such as arguing from evidence, cultivating dissent and sharing results (with fellow diners). It is this sort of reflective practice—on the what, when and how of science and art integration—that this study seeks to provoke and support to advance our understanding of how STEAM can promote more inclusive learning opportunities in both art and science.

Acknowledgment

Research was funded by the US National Science Foundation Award #1647150.

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