STEM vs STEAM

Debate rages over whether the popular Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teaching approach really needs the formal addition of the arts into the acronym.

Photo: iStock

Around the 2000s, key reports indicated that American students were underachieving in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, conveniently abbreviated to STEM. With STEM fields deemed critical to economy growth, technological innovation and global competitiveness, this decline caused concern among educators and policymakers. Consequently, schools began to focus on using STEM principles in interdisciplinary and experiential learning. 

Through STEM education, students learn how to apply STEM concepts, principles and skills from an early age via project-based and extracurricular activities. Some examples include building robots and using apps or devices to complete assignments. The idea is that earlier exposure to and frequent application of STEM concepts should result in a more practical understanding of STEM’s real-world relevance, which in turn will encourage students to pursue careers in STEM fields like life sciences, engineering and software development. 

Given the incredible pace of technological advancement and the skyrocketing demand for skilled workers in the STEM fields, more countries are following in the footsteps of the US and making STEM education a core component of their educational philosophy. However, some argue that while STEM is a good basis, it is not enough. Nearly two decades after its introduction, confusion still reigns over proper STEM definition and implementation, with one of the most oft-repeated arguments being that it sidelines the arts. Debate rages over whether the popular Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) teaching approach really needs the formal addition of the arts into the acronym. 

Photo: iStock

This has given rise to the support of the STEAM movement, which adds the letter A to represent the arts. Championed by the Rhode Island School of Design, the STEAM philosophy holds that the arts help to develop critical skills such as creativity and ingenuity to promote innovation, which STEAM proponents say pure STEM philosophy lacks. Look at Apple, they say, whose products are equally as renowned for their sleek aesthetics as well as their cutting-edge technology. Could Apple have achieved the success it has without the arts? 

Under the STEAM approach, arts and design-related skills and thinking processes are incorporated alongside the existing STEM scientific concepts in student learning. Students might use music composition software to compose their own songs, which can be a springboard to learning programming. Minecraft, a popular sandbox survival computer game, is another example. Players can use design and engineering thinking to build efficient 3D creations – such as a self-watering garden – or experiment with combining different resources into tools and equipment necessary for survival. 

So, is one better than the other? It’s hard to tell and depends on what skills and subjects people find more useful and important. A quick study of articles on both STEM and STEAM reveals a huge variance in understanding what they encompass. The ideal incarnation of STEM education seems to be an integrated teaching approach that underscores technology as the connecting factor between each subject, relating classroom learning to real-world applications and shifting away from segmenting knowledge. The problem solving and critical thinking skills learned in the process are meant to be applied in a diverse variety of projects – including the arts. 

Photo: iStock

However, STEM critics contend that in practice, a large portion of implementation has simply meant adding math and science classes without changing how they are taught. In some cases, the spotlighting of STEM education and jobs has led to the marginalisation of the arts, resulting in a growing schism between the arts and sciences. With both fields perceived as being disparate rather than complementary, the invisible line between logic and creativity is thought to be a contributing factor for the decrease in student interest and performance in STEM subjects at some schools. 

The importance of art and design proficiency, as well as the skills they teach, is evident. Designers improve a product’s marketability and usability. Artists bring digital characters to life. Writers make technical jargon clear and accessible. While STEM jobs will continue to be in demand as the digital age matures, employers have indicated a preference to hire well-rounded graduates. Clearer definitions and guidelines are necessary to ensure that the arts are not left out of the STEM narrative – whether that means refining the existing STEM approach or fully embracing STEAM remains to be seen. 

Given the subjectivity of what constitutes ‘good’ education, neither STEM nor STEAM is necessarily better than the other. However, by ensuring art and design principles are not neglected in the lesson plan, students will enjoy a more holistic education that will prepare them for any future profession. After all, in the real world, everything is connected. We need the artists, designers and writers as much as we need the scientists, programmers and doctors.


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