The Art of Inquiry in STEAM Education

The Art of Inquiry in STEAM Education
Jennifer Gunn November 7, 2018

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STEAM education encourages students to be curious and experiment as lifelong learners. Inquiry-based learning naturally fits with STEAM since it promotes critical thinking and innovation. Let’s explore the research behind inquiry-based STEAM teaching and some of the strategies used to engage students.

The future is here

The call for STEM/STEAM learning began in earnest in the early 2000s, and it rallied educators and policymakers to see the need for today’s students to be prepared for a technology-based future and a changing workforce. According to the Smithsonian Science Education Center, “Four billion people on the planet use a mobile phone, while 3.5 billion people use a toothbrush. In the past two years, 90% of all of the world’s data has been generated. NASA plans to set foot on Mars in the next 20 years, and driverless cars are already being tested in Europe. The future is here, and it requires a citizenry fluent in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).”


Using art in STEM projects harnesses the power of STEAM, which helps students understand how varied and impactful the arts are. STEAM projects help students discover how the arts are an integral part of processes and products that involve science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The arts can also help increase engagement since students can connect artistic mediums that they enjoy (like visual arts and music) with more technical projects that may seem daunting at first, such as building an app or programming a robot. They’re able to combine the familiar with the unfamiliar, acquiring new skills and discovering the world of artistic innovation.

Today’s innovators are creative, working collaboratively in open workspaces, sharing ideas globally with other thinkers, and combining their STEM powers with some killer STEAM talents. Today’s Google workers aren’t just software engineers or coders sitting in dark rooms lit only by computer monitors. They’re design-thinkers who spend 20% of their time developing passion projects. (Check out the The20TimeProject.But a crucial step in their creative process involves inquiry, and that’s why an inquiry-based approach takes STEAM to the next level.

Inquiry-based learning

When a topic triggers curiosity, that is the first step in inquiry-based learning. Students drive their learning through the questions that they ask, discovering the answers on their own. They also share and reflect on what they learn, owning their learning every step of the way. In inquiry-based learning, the teacher serves as an educational guide, not a sage on the stage. Teachers are there to monitor students’ progress, provide structural support when needed, and ensure that the focus remains on students’ questions and observations. Dr. Sharon Friesen, Vice Dean of the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary says that inquiry-based learning has many benefits: “Students learn how to: gather, critique, analyze, and interpret information; create working theories; pose new questions; bring forward evidence; integrate new ideas.”

Inquiry-based STEAM

Inquiry-based STEAM learning focuses on hands-on experiences and creative ways to solve problems. According to the Exploratorium’s Institute for Inquiry in San Francisco, “Inquiry is an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, and that leads to asking questions, making discoveries, and testing those discoveries in the search for new understanding.”

Inquiry-based STEAM learning mirrors the processes and thinking that scientists, engineers, and innovators use in the real world and it’s so much more than merely hands-on learning. “Inquiry-based science is sometimes conflated with ‘hands-on’ science,” says the Smithsonian Science Education Center. “While we know that actively engaging children with ‘hands-on’ science is important, it isn’t enough. Inquiry-based science employs the diverse practices scientists use to study the natural world. A well-designed, inquiry-based curriculum is appropriate for all ages of learners and effectively teaches science content while developing scientific habits of mind at the same time.”

An inquiry-based STEAM classroom combines the learning of terminology and content with active processes. “Inquiry-based science adopts an investigative approach to teaching and learning where students are provided with opportunities to investigate a problem, search for possible solutions, make observations, ask questions, test out ideas, and think creatively and use their intuition,” says Dr. Robyn M. Gillies, a professor in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. Students have opportunities to “develop explanations for the phenomena under investigation, elaborate on concepts and processes, and evaluate or assess their understandings in light of available evidence. This approach to teaching relies on teachers recognizing the importance of presenting problems to students that will challenge their current conceptual understandings so they are forced to reconcile anomalous thinking and construct new understandings.”

Getting started with inquiry-based STEM/STEAM

While creating inquiry-based STEAM or STEM lessons may seem challenging, take it one step at a time. Start with a topic that you know will interest your students. What STEAM subject will generate a range of questions, ideas, and problems for your learners? Maybe your school is debating about spending money on solar panels or a school garden. Perhaps your students love talking about the latest apps. Once you have a topic in mind, write down what you want them to explore, observe, experiment with, analyze, and refine. Then imagine your students at the end of this inquiry-based STEAM lesson or unit and make a list of the learning outcomes you want them to achieve through independent and group exploration (with a little guidance). Now you have a solid outline. To help you along the way, here are some great resources:

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation, and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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