STEM vs. STEAM: Explaining an Academic Debate

STEM vs. STEAM: Explaining an Academic Debate

Educators across the country are focusing on new STEM initiatives to help students become skilled scientists, technology workers, engineers, and innovators. Now, though, academics and policy-makers are talking about an alternative called STEAM – and even a third term, STREAM?

What do all the acronyms mean? And what differentiates them? Let’s explore both sides of this new debate in education.

What is STEM?

STEM is simply shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. More practically, the term STEM refers not just to those classes, but to efforts to help students succeed in them. Dedicated STEM high schools, for instance, help students focus their classwork on those fields, while the Department of Education promotes STEM-specific grants and helps to fund specialized teacher training. At the DCCCD, a STEM Institute offers scholarships to over 100 students every year.

STEM-focused schools and programs teach the four disciplines together, connecting the subjects and allowing students to apply skills from one class in another. Teachers in STEM programs coordinate lesson plans and focus on real-world applications to engage student interest. There’s one more element which differentiates new STEM programs from traditional science or math classes: they begin very early, typically in elementary school, to get students interested in math and science as quickly as possible.

What is STEAM?

STEAM is exactly the same thing – but with Arts added to the list.

STEAM programs are a much newer idea, which have only gained currency in the last four to five years. Because the concept is so new, STEAM is mostly still an idea, with a tiny handful of prototype schools across the country, such as Massachusetts’ Andover High School.

Although STEAM programs are still rare, there are some specialized programs which combine art and technology, like North Lake College’s own graphic design, video technology, and web design programs.

So, which program offers the best education opportunity?

Academics are busily debating the merits of adding Arts to the STEM curriculum. There are, of course, two sides to the story.

Some perceived benefits of STEAM:

  • Proponents say that arts education can provide a broader worldview and expanded perspective to STEM students.
  • Arts education may help designers find more creative solutions to engineering problems, or teach them ways to create more aesthetically pleasing products.
  • An art education can be very valuable in certain STEM specialties, such as architecture.

Drawbacks offered by STEAM’s critics:

  • The claims made by STEAM supporters are very hard to test, and there is little research on the subject.
  • Adding arts to a STEM curriculum means that it’s close to being a traditional curriculum – just without history and foreign languages.
  • Some artists and art teachers are offended by the suggestion that art’s purpose is to help engineers and technology experts do better jobs.

At least one advocacy group has suggested adding an R for Reading to form STREAM – and, not coincidentally, to form a complete curriculum that encompasses almost all of the traditional classroom subjects. Their suggestion is to continue present class subjects, but better synchronize lessons so that students can apply their new knowledge from one field in another.

Which will it be?

The debate about adding arts education to STEM programs is likely to play out in the best possible way: by experimentation and innovation. If enough schools adopt each curriculum, other districts will watch – and learn.

Either way, the path towards a more integrated curriculum, with connections forged between subjects, is an essential part of education’s future. About that core message – that learning in one field can aid and enforce learning in another – STEM and STEAM advocates can find common ground.

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