Welcome back to our new STEAM series. For two weeks, we are deconstructing the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math with posts that explore each subject in a new light. 

A couple years ago, the emphasis on STEM education became a push for STEAM—arts in addition to science, technology, engineering, and math. And rightfully so. Encouraging art along with technical skills empowers kids to create, and fosters the kind of innovative mindset that will help them later in life.

Schools and informal learning centers have embraced STEAM, as evidenced by the makerspaces cropping up in libraries and classrooms. STEAM projects are great opportunities to exercise interdisciplinary muscles and pair seemingly disparate fields and tools. Biology and design, say, or sewing and circuitry.

Meanwhile, however, traditional arts education often falls by the wayside or suffers funding cuts. Programs at low-income schools are most vulnerable. Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles are among the many school districts where funding for the arts has been slashed. In Los Angeles, restoration of arts programming has just begun after it was cut by 41 percent between 2008 and 2013, although here too the new emphasis is placed on integrating arts into the core academic subjects. The federal Arts in Education program has fought against threats of consolidation and budget cuts each year, finally ending up with a 2016 proposal to preserve it.

The question is: Does the A provide something on its own that may get diluted when it is wedged between S T E and M? The value of making is well documented, but are there also benefits to imagination and open-ended exploration without an emphasis on producing something tangible?

Research has repeatedly revealed the positive effect of arts education on cognitive development, especially when it comes to music class and underserved kids. In one Northwestern study, at-risk children who completed two years of a community music program had a stronger neural mechanism that is linked to reading and language skills.

In a 2012 report by the National Endowment for the Arts, former chairman Rocco Landesman asks “what’s lost” when art is abolished in schools. “The chance for a child to express himself,” he writes. “The chance for the idiosyncratic child who has not yet succeeded elsewhere to shine. A sense of play, of fun, of discovery.”

When schools decide or are forced to drop the arts, afterschool and informal learning networks often pick up some of the slack. In the Remake Learning Network, Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory pairs contemporary art installations with educational programming. Young artists in the site’s free Teen Art Cooperative get access to mentors and materials, gaining the skills they will need to become practicing artists. The Mattress Factory is one of several local museums and galleries that lead the Avonworth Pittsburgh Galleries Project. With support from the Sprout Fund, the institutions host young Pittsburgh artists who curate their own public exhibits.

Lots of kids yearn for these opportunities to explore and experiment. STEAM projects can fulfill those desires and more. But there is something about the feeling of cold clay spinning in your hands, or performing in front of a packed auditorium, that can’t quite be replaced.