STEM vs. STEAM: The Great Debate

Student looking at a butterfly through a magnifying glass; STEAM-focused curriculum

“STEM education” has become one of the buzziest terms in education, especially here in Houston where our schools are surrounded by large energy and tech companies. Integrating the science, technology, engineering, and math coursework that makeup a STEM education is of course a great way to prepare elementary and middle school students for life at high school and beyond, but is focusing solely on these four educational elements really the best way to create a curriculum?

While it feels like STEM education has been around for a long time, the idea actually dates back to 2001 when the National Science Foundation first recommended integrating these skills into schools. (Funny side note: they originally used the acronym SMET, which shows why they’re the National Science Foundation and not the National Naming Things Foundation.) Several reports were released in the mid-2000s that proved students in the United States had fallen behind their counterparts in other countries in the STEM disciplines, and thus a movement was born.

Student working on robotics project; STEAM-focused curriculum

STEM-specific educational pathways were created to better prepare students for a workforce where the number of science, technology, engineering, and math jobs are increasing at three times the rate of non-STEM jobs. The reaction to these studies makes sense when you realize that more than 6 million Americans work in STEM fields (up from 1.1 million in 1960), and that number should climb to 9 million by 2022. From a purely capitalistic viewpoint, careers in the STEM fields pay significantly more (about double) than non-STEM jobs.

In some schools, STEM education led to rigorous math and science courses that were segmented away from the rest of the curriculum, which goes against the original aim of the program. A true STEM education advocates moving away from segregated content areas and emphasizing technology to connect subjects. Ideally, students can study anything through a STEM lens, applying these principles to a range of diverse projects. Private schools, where administrators and faculty have a bit more control of curriculum, have become safe havens for this type of integrated learning.

Four students participating in an archaeology dig; project-based learning; STEAM-focused curriculum

The benefits of a STEM education are clear, but the program has one glaring weakness. This weakness is a subject so important that we have schools devoted to it. There are degree-plans at every university that focus on this subject. And you can’t have modern culture (be it popular culture or sophisticated culture) without it. I refer of course to the arts and the recent advent of STEAM education.

The ‘A’ in STEAM doesn’t just stand for the arts: it’s a broader term that represents all of the liberal arts. Language arts, physical arts (dance, gymnastics, etc.), fine arts, and music all fall under this umbrella. This type of education doesn’t mean educators should abandon STEM classes and focus more on the arts; rather it asks teachers to apply creative thinking to STEM projects and spark their students’ imaginations. STEAM curriculum is more customizable and it’s here that private schools can shine as they are not beholden to the same set curriculum that public schools must follow.

A group of students playing recorder instruments; STEAM-focused curriculum

While it’s undeniable that we have a STEM shortage in the United States, it’s also undeniable that those people responsible for our greatest technological innovations used the creative thinking, communication, problem solving, and artistic skills they developed in arts-related classes. The innovators of today work collaboratively in open concept workspaces, sharing ideas and combining STEM with STEAM to create technology that changes the way we live. These trailblazers need to be able to design, craft, experiment, and pioneer, and they can’t do that without a STEAM education.

Anecdotally, I’ve seen the power of STEAM in action with my own child. The focus is often on integrating the STEM subjects with the arts, and all classes emphasize the creative process.  She and her classmates have grand plans to create their own graphic novel, and they’re relying on each other to do so. They’re currently passing a notebook back and forth, and sharing their own special skills with the group. Some of them are sketching the panels of action, while others still developing their drawing skills are filling in the word balloons with dialogue and exposition. Others are laying down the plot and breaking open the story to provide guidance and the steadying hand needed to produce a work of art that all can enjoy. It’s inspiring to watch, and it’s driven home—for this parent at least—the need for all of the arts to remain part of the school experience long into the future.

We don’t know what the future holds for the students of today. We don’t know what problems they’ll face, but we do know that they’ll need a well-rounded education so that they can meet any and all challenges head-on. In education, that means adding the arts to math and sciences classes to produce lifelong learners who can innovate, communicate, and continue to make us proud.

Learn more about the importance of a STEAM program and The Branch School's curriculum.