STEM and STEAM – What’s the Difference?

By Anne Jolly

 

You already know what the acronym, STEM, stands for – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Add an “A” for arts, and the acronym becomes STEAM.

At first, including that “A” generated questions and frequent push-back, since STEAM brings together what we generally think of as polar opposites in the curriculum. But STEAM is part of the picture, and it’s worth taking a comparative look at the two programs.

STEM

Both private and public sectors report that U.S. schools are not producing enough graduates with the skills we need to continue leading the world in innovation. Our graduates need more rigorous knowledge of math and science, plus the ability to integrate and apply that knowledge to solve many challenges facing our nation. And they also need a variety of personal attributes and thinking skills.

Our job as K-12 educators is to prepare our students for the world they will enter when they graduate. That’s why STEM programs are being established – to equip students with the specific 21st-century knowledge and skills they need. According to a 2014 study by the America Society for Engineering Education, quality STEM programs need to look like this:

  1. Students actively engaged in solving real-world problems.
  2. Multiple STEM content areas being integrated in meaningful ways.
  3. Inquiry-based and student-centered teaching and learning in progress.
  4. Students using an engineering design process to work toward solutions.
  5. Productive teamwork and communication among students.
  6. Students thinking critically, creatively, and innovatively.

STEM, then, is a specific foundational program designed for a specific purpose – to integrate and apply math, science, and technology to find solutions for real problems, using an engineering design process.

STEAM

STEAM is picking up steam in many schools and systems, but questions arise: How does including art advance STEM? How can art and STEM truly help each other?

Fine Arts proponents like Ruth Catchen, believe that the arts can serve as an on-ramp to STEM for underrepresented students. She sees arts activities as a way to offer more diverse learning and to increase motivation and the probability of STEM success.  In an article on why we need to put the arts in STEM, author Anna Feldman points to art as a way to spark students’ imagination and apply creative thinking and design skills to these STEM projects. She maintains that arts offer great potential to foster creativity and ways of thinking that can unleash STEM innovation.

Roger Essley, artist, educator, and writer, promotes the use of visual tools to help STEM students grasp and share complex ideas. He points out that for centuries scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and inventors have used visual tools to explain their ideas to others and to clarify their own thinking.

So where does STEAM stand?

Including the “A” in STEM certainly offers promise, but how do we include the arts in STEM in an authentic way?

Here are 3 ways to include the arts in STEM:

  • Design. Art can serve a practical function in STEM. Students can apply art design principles to products they create during a STEM challenge. They can use computer graphics to create logos or stylized designs to include in communications or presentations. Through industrial design, students can improve the appearance, design, and usability of a product. These types of undertakings can also help them gain digital skills and apply technology in authentic ways.

 

  • Communication. Art (including the language arts), can play an important role in communicating with other students and with a wider community. For example, during STEM lessons students may sketch their ideas to make them clearer to others. They may use technical or persuasive writing or communicate orally. Language arts teachers can play a strong role in helping STEM students gain the collaboration and communication skills they need for the 21st-century marketplace.

 

  • Creative planning.  As students brainstorm solutions to an engineering problem, they might be more productive if they adopt a playful, inventive, artistic approach. Calling on their artistic right brain can help them to generate creative and innovative thinking. It can also bring added enthusiasm to the project.

To me, art and STEM seem to make good partners. In fact, since art is already a de facto part of STEM, strategically integrating it into a STEM program can be a sensible move. However, STEM education must maintain its clearly defined form and purpose. It should be driven by real engineering problems and integrate supporting science, mathematics and technology skills, processes, and concepts. Arts must not be used simply as a means of enhancing the lesson, but as a true means of contributing to a STEM challenge.

 

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