What Does It Mean To Say STEAM?

Ruth Catchen, April 2015, Colorado Springs, CO


The acronym STEAM inherently ties itself to STEM, and it is my belief that there is no STEAM without STEM. Even though I create STEAM lessons and curriculum, I continue to question,  “What does it mean to say STEAM?”

Just as STEM means different things to different people, so does STEAM. The need to clarify what you mean, what you intend to include and what the outcomes should be, is important. Learning is an all-inclusive, never-ending process, so why not make STEM as STEAM, a pedagogy that is as inclusive as possible?

STEM may have started as a way to define and combine the individual disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but it has grown to be an integrated group of subjects that includes a lot: multiple academic content, a way of learning that content, and how they all relate together. STEM is rooted in practicality: problem solving, critical thinking and workforce readiness.  As an integrated pedagogy, it seems only natural that it overlaps with other content. The content many call for is the arts. So, what does “the arts” include and how does including them benefit STEM education?

The arts include visual art, music, dance, drama and even physical education. The use of language arts for communication so that students can present what is learned or even promote or market their solutions falls under this umbrella as well. Some of this content may be already there and implied. It is a good idea to specify, so that it is not ignored. Along with all of that, understanding history and the place of innovation is also relevant. The idea of STEAM is to use the arts deliberately as a tool for depth and understanding that may relate to students’ current or past experiences and strengths. Good teachers may do this, perhaps without realizing it. Spelling it out in a curriculum or giving it a name, STEAM, gives credibility and definition to this pedagogy, so that teachers, administrators, students and parents can understand.

To address one of the main criticisms of STEAM, understand that including the arts in STEM is not teaching arts content per se. It should not be confused with arts classes and it is not a call to replace them.  Through STEAM, a teacher may use physical experience, such as dance, to give students an opportunity to understand how molecules move and change.  Music can be used to replicate patterns and so their importance to math and science seen and experienced in less abstract ways. Listening to music, students can hear the patterns, both melodic and rhythmic. The visual arts offer opportunity to understand and develop aesthetic skills while students work through a design challenge using the engineering design process: the use of light and color, shapes and perspective.

Benefits of adding the arts to STEM:

  • Support for STEM content understanding from varying perspectives.
  • Enrich and enhance student experience giving self-efficacy so students can better engage in a rigorous STEM lesson.
    • Using the arts to take a risk and embracing unconventional ideas or experiences.
  • Using the arts as a ‘hook” results in a more diverse student base to study STEM subjects.
    • This includes learning how to discern beauty (yes, evaluate 'things' and works of art from an aesthetic perspective)
    • Use emotion for positive impact in solving problems.
  • Adding the arts helps students connect STEM skills to a larger variety of STEM subjects and STEM jobs such as fashion design and culinary arts.
    • Using the arts as a communication tool and demonstration of knowledge (i.e. a video, mosaic, newsletter, etc.)

Arts opportunities reach out to more students who may not engage immediately in STEM subjects benefitting overall engagement and participation in STEM subjects. The arts enhance these STEM attributes:

  • Understand how to take risk and accept failure as a process
  •  Improves tenacity and persistence
  • Opportunities for creativity
  • Opportunities to explore innovative ideas
  • Ability to evaluate and understand aesthetic value
  • Collaboration and teamwork

Perhaps it is my perspective as an artist, or former artist, that won’t allow me to not include the arts. I feel passion for students to learn through inclusive experiences that don’t allow for leaving anyone out. My passion comes from my life experience in both teaching music and teaching STEAM. I have seen it work. I see the connections happen and students’ eyes light up from their own discovery. Experiencing the connections of science and art is powerful. It’s there and as teachers, we must use all the tools in the toolbox for students to gain depth and understanding. In the long run, making these connections allows them to be the masters of their own learning and discovery.

 This VIDEO about "What Letter Should We Add To STEM?" gives a perspective from many notables in both the education and STEM world.