Building STEAM: The Value of the Arts

by Stephen P. Johnson, DMA

After parking on the side of the red mud road in São Paulo, Brazil, last year, I entered the heart of the favela—a city slum with more than 2 million people. Remarkably, amidst the squalor stood the state-of-the-art Instituto Baccarelli, a life-changing school of music for inner-city children founded 20 years ago by conductor Silvio Baccarelli.

Inspired to help the kids in this favela where an average of four to six families live in a single room, Baccarelli pestered government officials for months until they assigned him 30 of the most troubled kids. He began teaching violin, viola, cello, and double bass to the children, and they thrived. Today, more than 1,200 kids from early elementary age to high school study music rather than follow their peers who often become drug dealers and peddlers. Instead, most continue on to college and areas of business.

Through a high-level approach to music education, Instituto Baccarelli empowers students who were born in a favela to qualify for admission to top universities and successful careers. Building on that momentum, the São Paulo government added other family services in the community, with the Instituto Baccarelli as the anchor establishment, and plans to copy the paradigm in neighboring cities.

This use of music as a tool to transition children from an impoverished lifestyle to a world of opportunity merely scratches the surface of the potential of the arts in education. Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between the arts and other disciplines, educators in the United States have begun a movement from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math).


With the establishment of STEM as the cornerstone of public education, many have rallied a coinciding swell of support for taking a more rounded pedagogical approach by adding the arts to the movement. One of the leading advocates, the Rhode Island School of Design, seeks “to foster the true innovation that comes with combining the mind of a scientist or technologist with that of an artist or designer.” This movement contends that the various arts disciplines are vital components of the growth of the modern mind with an eye toward preparing children to meet the multifaceted challenges that face their generation.

Research on the value of including the arts in the educational process abounds at all levels, and educators and professionals in multiple fields emphasize the training of the entire person. Howard Gardner, Ph.D., professor of cognition and education at Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of Frames of Mind (Basic Books, 2011), wrote, “What is important is that every human being deserves to learn about the arts and humanities, just as each person should be cognizant of the sciences.”

What is the value of arts education and how does one measure it? Is it economically viable? What demonstrable good do the arts disciplines have on the STEM disciplines? Do they better the functioning of society?


According to the U.S. Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, a joint work of the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, arts and cultural production contributed a total of $704.2 billion to the U.S. economy in 2013. The National Endowment for the Arts chair, Jane Chu, said, “This tells us that the arts remain a valuable and desirable commodity for U.S. customers, and that the arts are a strong contributor to America’s economic vitality.” This trend has been measured over 15 years and demonstrates a 32.5 percent growth of the GDP from arts and cultural production since 1998. These disciplines include film and television, performing arts, independent artists, and advertising and graphic design. In fact, in 2013, the American motion picture and television industry provided 1.9 million jobs and paid $113 billion in wages. This analysis contradicts the idea of a “starving artist” and moves the discussion toward viability and sustainability of entrepreneurial pursuits in the arts.


Multiple studies point to increased performance quality on many scholastic tests among students who are engaged in artistic preparation. Many of these studies include the areas of neuroscience and statistics. James Catterall, Ph.D., professor emeritus of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, discussed the arts in education from that perspective. “The cognitive research community has explored roles of the arts in science and mathematics learning in recent years, with positive results in individual studies investigating such things as music learning and spatial reasoning. … Based on accumulated individual studies, it is fair to say that we understand a great deal about how various visual and performing arts experiences impact diverse areas of understanding. The STEAM team has a substantial research-based case for the potential roles of arts in science and technology learning.”

In 2014, the University of Vermont College of Medicine conducted a significant study on the impact of musical training on the brain development of children. In addition to confirming the already-assumed improvements to children’s ability to succeed in math, this study demonstrated that musical training provides significant benefits to children’s emotional and behavioral maturation. These findings stand in contrast to the trend in the American education system in the last few decades. Within this study, the research team led by James Hudziak, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the Vermont Center for Children, Youth and Families, reported that three-quarters of U.S. high school students rarely or never take extracurricular lessons in music or the arts. “Such statistics, when taken in the context of our present neuroimaging results, underscore the vital importance of finding new and innovative ways to make music training more widely available to youths, beginning in childhood,” said Hudziak.


Despite the supportive research on the economic impact the arts have with the STEM disciplines, unless there is support from the federal government, the inclusion of the arts in public schools will remain an uphill battle with isolated pockets of success. Although the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 sought to raise the quality of education in public schools and bring America to the forefront of education competition, it produced the negative side effect of initiating a downward trend in art education.

However, the last two years have been productive, thanks in part to the actions of a bipartisan Congressional STEAM Caucus. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), cochair of the STEAM Caucus, successfully added an amendment last November to the rewrite of the nation’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) legislation to integrate the arts into STEM education. This amendment passed unanimously. A few weeks later, in December 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which included the amended provision. As part of the inclusion of arts into STEM education, funding that was not available with the initial STEM implementation will now be extended to the arts.

The momentum continues on the state level in California. In January, Senate Bill 916, the Theater and Dance Act (TADA), was introduced into the California Legislature. This bill helps remedy a gap in California (one of two states in the U.S. that does not offer teaching credentials in theater and dance) by allowing theater and dance instructors to obtain credentials in their specific fields rather than in physical education and English.


Within the College of Music and the Arts at APU, we continually ask ourselves, “How will we engage a robust approach that will prepare graduates for successful careers in a competitive marketplace?” We believe in both the economic viability of the arts entrepreneur as well as the intrinsic, immeasurable value of the arts on the human soul. With this foundation, we pursue a variety of current and new academic programs. Three new programs launching in 2017 demonstrate this variety: M.A. in Art Education, M.A. in Screenwriting, and M.A. in Music Entrepreneurship. These programs join an impressive list of arts degrees at APU that cultivate artistic excellence and authentic Christian faith, while successfully connecting our students with the various arts markets.

Through the M.A. in Art Education, we will be able to serve art teachers at schools all around the country in an online format, and through two one-week “summer practicums on campus supported by the scholarships and underwriting of a $4.5 million endowment established for this program. We are poised to assist teachers as they navigate the recently amended provision of the ESEA, which brings funding to the arts that was previously reserved only for STEM disciplines. A unique aspect of this program is that it connects our art educators in schools, museum programs, home education, and community programs across the country with their craft as makers of art. We believe that when research and engagement in a primary discipline is an active part of teachers’ lives, it enlivens every aspect of their interaction with their students. Conversely, the more an artist strays from active engagement in the arts, the more he or she runs the risk of extinguishing the fire within their students and themselves.

That fire burns brightly at Instituto Baccarelli as the faculty and students passionately impact their culture by maintaining a heart for service, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a willingness to take risks. These three attributes resonate with the faculty of APU’s College of Music and the Arts, and we have partnered with Instituto Baccarelli. Now, those students move from the favela in São Paulo, through the institute, to APU. Likewise, APU students now have the opportunity to teach and learn within the favela. With this firsthand experience, our domestic and international students may gain a vision for taking the arts into their own communities and be lights in their cultures.

As local school systems embrace and implement these changes and new funding promotes and supports the arts, children will become innovators equipped to change the world and solve the complex problems that face their generation—just as Silvio Baccarelli did in a favela in São Paulo, Brazil.

Stephen P. Johnson, DMA, is the founding dean of the College of Music and the Arts.

Originally published in the Fall '16 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.