November 8, 2019

What is STEAM Education?

November 8th marks National STEAM Day. But what is STEAM education? And what do those capitalized letters stand for? And why is it so important for students today? 

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math. In the classroom, STEAM education uses those subjects as “as access points for guiding student inquiry, dialogue, and critical thinking” via problem-based learning that tackles real-world issues. The end result is curious students who are knowledgeable about the world—they are self-driven, self-directed creative thinkers capable of reframing, imagining, and seeing problems from different perspectives.

That is to say, they are ready, able, and excited to adapt to a fast-changing world, and the jobs that will come to define it


Did you know nearly half of the 10 fastest-growing occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Labor are in STEAM fields? But schools aren’t equitably preparing all graduates for these jobs of the future. Young people from low-income families and young people of color face the biggest gaps in opportunities to prepare for the future of work. 

Further, STEAM education provides an interdisciplinary learning model where students are able to apply content knowledge as well as key skills. Graduates who receive high-quality STEAM education will be better prepared to face real-life problems with more creativity, critical thinking, and effectiveness.

Because National STEAM Day is an effort to encourage young people to explore and identify their interests and passions for STEAM, we thought we’d celebrate this day by sharing some examples from XQ schools that are doing just that.


Iowa BIG’s work in the STEM/STEAM field has already been recognized by the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council as a 50 BEST STEM Program in the state. That’s because Iowa BIG is a place where high school students learn by working with peers from across the city on projects that matter to them and to others in the community. It’s a place where superb, committed teachers from all the major disciplines ensure that those projects integrate experiences that meet state standards and prepare students for college. It’s a place where, at the end of their high school experience, students walk away with more than just credits and grades: they also get the satisfaction of real-world problems solved, projects accomplished, and résumés that speak to who they are as people. 

Iowa BIG students learn through rigorous projects generated and co-designed by community partners focused on solving real problems those partners are facing. Potential partners– including businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies—are encouraged to look carefully at their current priorities and ask: What problems are we facing that high school students could help us solve? How could we make the project really interesting and challenging, so students will be motivated to learn a lot and do a great job? 


Crosstown High is located in Memphis, Tennessee, and situated in Crosstown Concourse, a 1.5 million-square-foot iconic local landmark that’s been redeveloped as a home to arts organizations, health care providers, a YMCA, restaurants, a credit union, a pharmacy, higher education institutions, foundations, and nonprofits. Through projects and daily interactions with Concourse partners, Crosstown students make connections between academics and their own lives—all while contributing to the revitalization of Memphis.

For example, students who enroll in AP Human Geography work on urban design projects that demonstrate what they want (and hope) their community to look like 30 years from now. Throughout the course, students consider solar panels, housing, and safety through the lens of collaboration and compassion, all while being empowered to lead their own learning. If you were a fly on the wall, you’d see a space where students are flowing in and out of the design space, as well as holding impromptu huddles in the classroom. Further, you’d see student-centered learning, student choice, and real connections to the subject matter. 


At New Harmony High, students are not passive bystanders to the environmental challenges facing the Gulf Coast and the world—they are active researchers, advocates, and problem-solvers. New Harmony offers a flexible learning environment that maximizes the time students spend on lab work and hands-on experiences.

Working side-by-side with researchers, scientists, engineers, and architects along the Mississippi River Delta, students investigate problems such as coastal erosion, land loss, sea-level rise, community displacement, and ecosystem damage. These weekly “Leaving to Learn” experiences engage students in addressing the most urgent challenges facing the region while simultaneously creating a workforce equipped to meet the challenges of tomorrow.


At Washington Leadership Academy in Washington, D.C., all students take four years of computer science, which equips them with skills in coding, web development, information technology, operating systems, and even virtual reality. Students also take enrichment courses that integrate STEM content in their state-of-the-art maker space.

Washington Leadership Academy set records in multiple categories for access to AP Computer Science. Students get access to computer science much sooner than students at most other schools. This year, 196 students in Washington, D.D., took the AP Computer Science Principles Exam. Of those 196 students, 85 students from Washington Leadership Academy took the exam. When the results came in, 31.6% of students who passed the test attend Washington Leadership Academy.  


At PSI High, is a place where students work together to solve real community, business, and social problems while attaining the competencies for college and career.

When you first walk into PSI High’s building, you’ll see workstations for each partnership lined up against the walls—it’s a good example of how PSI is “rethinking space”… what started off as a simple common room, is now a flexible multipurpose space dedicated to embedding the community into the school.

A great example of this is the use of the Siemens Smart Mirror (Siemens is 1 of 9 PSI High community partners). A group of 4 PSI High students designed and built the mirror—from the hardware to programming and coding the mirror to display the weather, time, date, and other Siemen’s updates. Eventually, this mirror will be used for the Siemens Engineers’ Workplace.


Purdue Polytechnic High School was created in partnership with Purdue University explicitly to develop a new generation of skilled talent — graduates prepared for the high-tech, high-wage jobs of the future. In the past year alone, the school has been recognized for its work to help ensure graduates receive direct admission into the Polytechnic College at Purdue (an agreement that benefits the low-income, underrepresented minority students the school aims to serve). 

Learning is industry-focused and experiential, with a strong STEAM emphasis. Students learn problem-solving and critical thinking through real-world design challenges with industry partners. This is a really unique and compelling design thinking approach to workforce development whose “learn by doing” philosophy is put into practice in the school’s robotics lab and throughout the entire campus (it’s really dope 😉).


Efforts like National STEAM Day is a fun way to raise awareness, but they’re not enough. We have to keep asking important questions. How do we increase and support the participation of underrepresented groups in STEAM fields? How can we create and support a strong pipeline of STEAM teachers, particularly among underrepresented groups? What do graduates need in order to tackle the biggest social, environmental, and political challenges they will face? How can STEAM learning help prepare them for those challenges?

At XQ, we believe that to prepare the workforce of the future, we need high schools that prepare students for the future of work. We hope you’ll join the #ReThinkHighSchool movement to do just that. 

P.S. Looking for more original XQ articles in the STEM/STEAM arena? Just click here!



STEAM doesn’t just stand for science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. It also stands for innovation in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond. If you have an awesome STEAM-related story you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you!

Telling your story might help another educator, school, or community thousands of miles away. 

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Edmund Sandoval

Contributing Writer



"In case you hadn’t heard, #STEAMEducation is 100% techcellent! 🔬💻📡📱🚀 #ReThinkHighSchool "

"#STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. It also stands for innovation in the classroom, the workplace, and beyond! #ReThinkHighSchool"

"Students who receive high-quality #STEAMEducation will be better prepared to face real-life problems with more creativity, critical thinking, and effectiveness. #ReThinkHighSchool "

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