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UNC Charlotte event to explain why arts are essential to STEM education

For the last couple of years, Lee Baumgarten watched from his art studio as North Carolina’s public schools grew its emphasis on STEM concepts from seedling to leafy crop.

He would talk with other artists who agreed that the nation’s public education system needed an overhaul, and that science, technology, engineering and mathematics were all important strands to study if the United States ever wanted to return as global top-dog innovators.

But to Baumgarten, a former professor turned full-time artist, one glaring letter has always been missing from STEM: the “A.” To reform education to meet today’s workforce, education must teach how to be creative.

Now he’s one of a handful of local advocates behind an effort to add the arts into the mix and change STEM to STEAM.

On July 15 and 16, they’ll offer STEM2STEAM in Charlotte, a free two-day workshop for teachers, community leaders or anyone else interested in learning why the arts are so important in education.

The free event, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. both days at UNC Charlotte Center City, will offer an assortment of discussions from professional artists and educational experts.

Monday’s speakers include arts consultant and advocate Morenga Hunt; “The Arts Book” author Elda Franklin; Clifton Vann, president of Livingston & Haven, an industrial technology provider; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison.

On Tuesday, Roderic Brame of R2B2 STEM Education LLC, author of “The Mighty Titans,” will meet with workshop attendees.

Baumgarten also will speak both days on a variety of topics, from how to use creative tools for problem solving to discussing new thinking styles and experiential learning.

STEAM’s basic premise focuses on the critical need for creativity when solving problems, instead of relying solely on rote memorization and standard formulas.

“A rounded education means you have to have some sense of expression. That’s what the STEAM concept is all about,” Baumgarten said. “The arts bring in the creativity. You can’t really redefine anything without some kind of creativity.”

Students don’t know how to apply what they’ve learned in class to real-world problems, Baumgarten said, and that’s a common conviction shared among many of today’s business and industry leaders as well.

“We’re in trouble because we don’t have innovative thinkers,” Baumgarten said. “We’ve got people that have learned how to deal with a template, but to make one themselves, they don’t know how to do that.”

Baumgarten has been on both sides of the desk himself: first as a graduate of Columbus College of Art & Design, then as a professor at the school.

As it has in the past, he added, American education needs to change so it can produce the kind of worker that’s needed today.

“A hundred years ago we devised a school system where you sit in rows. You don’t ask questions. You listen and learn and memorize,” Baumgarten said. “That’s the exact structure we needed in industry at that time.”

Most of today’s workforce, though, doesn’t stand on assembly lines at factories anymore. They need to be creative problem-solvers. It exposes the old education system as glaringly outdated, said Baumgarten.

“We taught them to be good workers, but we didn’t teach them how to think,” he said. Adding tools that focus on creativity will achieve that deficiency.

“The way I look at it, this is not a hard problem to solve,” Baumgarten said. “It’s not that we have to change the world. We just have to change our view of it.”

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