What is STEAM?

Oh, no—not another acronym! 

If you are like many educators, seeing STEAM rise out of the hot curriculum focus on STEM, you may be rolling your eyes. But before you dismiss STEAM, take some time to roll the idea around your brain. There are numerous definitions and visions of STEAM education out there, with some making really good sense about how to help STEM education come alive for all students.

Here’s the good news about the STEAM acronym: STEM is at the core. The STEM Arts Effect vision is to use cross-curricular experiences and a variety of deep content, combined with discovery through real world activities, to maximize learning. It allows students to learn from their strengths and improve their weaker skills.


 The arts offer unique opportunities to explore and expand our abilities to communicate. Contrary to what traditional education and stereotypes in the STEM fields may imply, effective communication can lead to success in STEM fields at both the K-12 and the professional level. Without communicating well, how can you really understand a problem that you want to solve; how can you tap into teammate’s ideas to inform your own thinking; how can you express your own solutions or tentative ideas so you can get feedback learning?

There is an often-neglected aspect of real-world STEM pursuits that also links to the need for great communication. It is that STEM is impacted by and impacts the real world. Communicating to others outside STEM fields is critical to making sure that social problems are addressed with neither too little nor too much trust in “STEM people.”

The arts also can help students develop as independent thinkers, a key to great critical thinking and to contributing to a group’s successful approach to a challenge. Taught properly, the arts encourages students to articulate their own value systems and analyze works of art that are concrete and engaging.  The promise of transferring these skills to the STEM classroom is the promise to vitalize classroom discussion about the relative merits of different explanations for phenomena, efficacy of technologies, experimental designs, and solution pathways in math and engineering.

Simultaneously, we see the perennial curriculum challenge and opportunity of implementing STEAM. If STEAM programming is going to realize its potential benefits to learners,  then of course, we must find approaches to integration, innovation, and imagination that inspire students and educators. We must understand each field in the acronym – the science, technology, engineering, arts, and math—so that we create meaningful and authentic experiences that will advance student learning. That’s true of all curricula, but in STEAM that means asking what unique benefits we can offer by deliberate, thoughtful inclusion of the arts in students’ STEM experiences.

It is with this challenge and opportunity in mind that The STEM Arts Effect moves forward, developing curricular approaches, educator research, and professional development experiences that will help those who join us create a powerful STEAM engine that can drive better learning for more students.

Ruth Catchen and Carolyn DeCristofano

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