student learning VR

What is STEAM Education?

In New York City, students visiting the Empire State Building’s observatory can use a new curriculum to learn about the famous skyscraper’s engineering, energy efficiency, and design. In Ionia, Michigan, a high school senior won an app challenge from his local member of Congress with a math game he designed, after taking courses in robotics, technology, and digital design. 

Projects like these erase the lines that traditionally divide academic subjects and give students a chance to combine concepts and knowledge from across different disciplines to create deeper understanding and solve real world problems through meaningful, engaged learning.   

This type of learning also illustrates the growing popularity of STEAM Education. STEAM Education is an approach to teaching and learning that combines science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math to guide student inquiry, discussion, and problem-solving. Education experts say STEAM education is about more than developing practical skills alone. It also helps students develop the capacity to:

  • Take thoughtful risks
  • Engage in meaningful learning activities
  • Become resilient problem solvers
  • Embrace and appreciate collaboration
  • Work through the creative process

Through STEAM, students are empowered to be curious learners who seek creative solutions to questions they can’t just search for online, leading students to develop the soft and hard skills necessary to succeed in college and in their careers. It’s become so popular there is even now a yearly National STEAM Day to encourage students to get curious about science, math, and art activities.     

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In high schools across the country, including XQ schools, students benefit every day from innovative approaches to curriculum and teaching that use real-world, interdisciplinary learning experiences. Not only are students being prepared for college and careers, they connect their learning to their communities through projects that address the issues that affect their daily lives. 

The Difference Between STEAM and STEM

Although similar, STEAM and STEM education are not interchangeable terms. While STEAM uses the same concepts as STEM, STEAM also incorporates the arts and sometimes the humanities. However, educators say simply adding arts and crafts to a STEM project or making the project “look pretty” doesn’t make it a STEAM lesson. 

Instead, the arts must be integrated into the lesson so students can see how each relevant discipline connects and works together. This allows students to develop and use skills naturally embedded in the arts and humanities, including empathy, creativity, and communication. 
In fact, research shows that student who participate in creative programs display

  • Advanced thinking
  • The know-how to cope with stress
  • Enhanced self-awareness
  • Social skills like teamwork, communication, confidence, autonomy, and motivation
  • The ability to build connections with their community 

It’s no accident that these same skills are evident in the XQ Design Principles for reimagining high school, and are fundamental to every XQ school. That’s why the “A” in STEAM is so vital. Integrating the arts into STEM allows students to connect their work to real life problems facing their communities; it helps them better see how skills learned in the classroom can lead to careers in the future; and it helps them discover new passions they might not have encountered through STEM alone.

At Washington Leadership Academy, an XQ school in Washington, D.C. where students are creators and not just consumers of technology, all students take computer science, and creativity and imagination are just as integral to the program as learning how to code. 

Courses in data science and web design are offered alongside robotics, gaming, and art, and students study the intersection of technology and public policy to not only learn how computers operate but how they influence society as well. 

Myles Proctor is a Computer Science teacher at WLA. In addition to teaching about computer science principles, Proctor teaches courses on graphic arts and music. Proctor says the integration of the arts plays an important role in expanding student knowledge, from learning the principles behind how major companies design their logos and websites to simply hearing their own musical creations come to life.

“The fundamental nature of computer science is that you’re alway learning and curious about solving new challenges,” Proctor says. “It’s a constant journey of finding stuff along the way that could be helpful in the future, and the more curious students are about finding new tools leads to being better computer scientists.” 

Caption: This is a virtual reality look at Saigon during the Vietnam War; photo courtesy: Springpoint Blog

Why Is It Important to the Future of Education?

A big part of the education system’s function is to prepare students for the future workforce. 

That’s why STEAM education is so important. Students explore through curiosity, play, and hands-on learning. And who knows? What they find might just lead to the next emerging STEAM career. The challenging part is that many STEAM careers are always evolving, and although we can’t predict the future of jobs, we can help prepare students with the knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in those jobs. 

At Purdue Polytechnic High School—an XQ school in Indianapolis, Indiana—instead of traditional courses, students learn academics through several industry-backed design challenges each year. Working with local partners including the Indianapolis Zoo, Subaru, and most recently with Eli Lilly and Co., to use their state-of-the-art lab equipment to conduct science experiments. Partnerships like these can really supercharge a school’s commitment to STEAM education and meaningful, engaged learning overall. 

The aim is for students to get real-life experience solving real-world challenges. 

These projects immerse students in the design thinking process, learning important skills like research, interviewing, prototyping, testing, and pitching ideas.    

For PPHS Design and Fine Arts Coach Mackenzie Hurd, it’s important that students connect their projects to skills that will serve them in the future, and many of the challenges Hurd designed are based on ones she herself tackled as a Purdue student. 

Hurd says that students who are interested in design and computer graphic careers are already learning how to use software in high school that she didn’t study until grad school. For example, last year, students worked with a “client,” a PPHS coach who runs the school’s bee-keeping club, to design stickers for the jars used by the school’s honeybee club.

PPHS industry projects provide students the inspiration to jump into STEAM and STEM related fields. PPHS alum Audrey Williamson is a freshman at Purdue University studying robotics engineering. Williamson became interested in robotics during her junior at PPHS, when advisors from Purdue visited the high school to outline the different majors available in college.

During her time in high school, Williamson worked on projects ranging from robotics to embroidery, and she says the skills she developed at PPHS serve her well as an undergraduate. 

“Industry projects were a very valuable experience because they taught me a lot about the design process, and how to iterate and solve problems efficiently while thinking about other perspectives.”   

At Iowa BIG, Math and Science Project Mentor Shawn Cronally says diversifying STEM projects with the arts is not only important for a well-rounded education, it also adds to student employability. 

“We have students who see themselves as STEM students and [who do] not branch out into the humanities, or marketing, or literature,” Cronally says. “But we want them to grow and understand the need for things like grant writing and the business of science.” 

It’s typically an easy sell to students, as Cronally has the data to back up his argument. Citing hiring profiles collected from community partners, it’s clear that while hard skills in areas like physics and electronics are important, businesses also need skills like collaboration, team management, and grant writing in hirees. 

“I tell students, ‘you have the science skills, but you don’t know how to write a clear budget.’ Kids can hear that and realize we’re trying to help them grow.”

How STEAM Connects Students to Their Community 

The chance for students to build connections with their community is one of the most powerful outcomes of a STEAM education, allowing students to work on real-world problems that have a direct impact on their lives while also getting a chance to preview a possible future career path. 

At Latitude High School—an XQ school  in Oakland, California—the school and its teachers work hard to connect projects to the community. Latitude Science Lead Regina Kruglyak tries to create many possibilities for students to connect with community members and issues facing the surrounding area. For example, her physics classes studied the local waterways to better understand inequities, something that started in humanities classes.

“We’re taking these issues and looking at them through a design lens to think about why it feels like there are more privileged people using the waterways and how can students take it back.” 

In another project, 10th grade students designed their own underwater remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to gather data about the water quality in Lake Merritt and the San Francisco Bay. For one project, students work with a local harbormaster to provide underwater analysis for dock and boat repairs, while for another client, students will work with the River Otter Ecology Project to monitor the water for microplastics, mercury, PCBs, and more.

Community-driven STEAM happens everywhere in classrooms of Iowa BIG. At the Cedar Rapids-based high school, everything connects back to a project or a case study connected to their community. Students choose from a pool of projects suggested by community partners or based on their own interests to address authentic problems and develop real solutions, all while earning core academic credits. 

From working with an Iowa nonprofit to combat food insecurity, to designing a smart compost system for their neighborhood, to working with the local chamber of commerce to launch a program highlighting businesses that have a reasonable wage gap between highest and lowest paid employees, the community is the classroom at Iowa BIG. 

Beyond just content-based skills, students are also gaining employability skills through these types of projects, says Shawn Cronally. Thanks to community partnerships, students are emerging from high school with strong team building expertise along with a network that is invaluable. 

“Students get summer work through their network, they use those folks as references on job applications,” Cronally says. “Every student says they appreciate it and that it’s made a difference in their lives.”

The STEAM Education Model and How to Implement It 

At XQ, we believe that one of the ways to transform high schools is to recognize that real-world problems are complex and their solutions often need to pull from different disciplines and perspectives. One way to do that is through interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

An important thing to keep in mind is that STEAM is an interdisciplinary approach to education, using different aspects of more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic.

As research shows, an interdisciplinary approach to learning helps students learn how to solve problems by recognizing bias, thinking critically, embracing ambiguity, and analyzing ethical concerns.  

That interdisciplinary approach through STEAM education applies to both students and teachers. 

PPHS’s Mackenzie Hurd sees collaboration on a daily basis between teachers from different academic fields. 

“One thing I love is how easy it is for projects to overlap and for coaches to partner up to combine areas of expertise and bounce ideas off of each other,” Hurd says. She recently worked with an engineering coach to come up with aesthetic ideas for a cardboard chair design project. 

Here are three quick tips schools can think about when implementing STEAM education:

  1. Create teams of teachers with different subject expertise to plan STEAM lessons 
  2. Adjust both student and teacher schedules to accommodate STEAM-based lesson plans, including time for planning, refinement, and reflection 
  3. Ensure staff and faculty receive professional development in STEAM practices, principles, and supports

Shawn Cronally has worked in siloed classrooms before, but he says that’s not the model at Iowa BIG, where teachers are what he calls “dyed-in-the-wool integrationists.” Cronally says interdisciplinary projects are part of the DNA of the school, and teachers are given an unusual amount of time to focus on that work. 

“There is so much collaboration between all five teachers,” Cronally says. “We cycle through all our students and projects, giving each other ideas about how to expand the edges of projects into other areas. We don’t monitor lunch or think about bus schedules. We only talk about pedagogy and students, and if a project isn’t interdisciplinary, someone calls it out.” 

No matter how a school chooses to implement STEAM education programs in its community, it’s important to keep some core components in mind:    

  1. Intentionally connect standards, assessments, and lessons that integrate science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts 
  1. Include two or more standards from science, technology, engineering, math, and the arts in your lesson plans and assessments
  1. Put inquiry, collaboration, and process-based learning at the heart of your curriculum
  1. Leverage the integrity of the arts to create an authentic and meaningful learning environment 

Meaningful and Engaged Learning Through STEAM 

Just as learning can take place anywhere, STEAM education can take place in and out of the classroom, no matter the subject. But it’s more than just having a 3D printing lab in your school. 

The whole point of STEAM is to inspire inquiry and curiosity; to empower students to ask thought-provoking questions that promote creativity and exploration, and to connect their problem-solving to real-world solutions. With STEAM, no subject, or student, is excluded. 

And when done correctly, research has shown the impact STEAM can have on student success, from increasing science achievement to increased literacy and math skills.    

These beliefs are being put to action in XQ schools around the country with meaningful, engaged learning through STEAM projects, like at Iowa BIG where students worked on a documentary to address gun violence in their community, or 11th graders at New Harmony High in New Orleans who used storytelling to explore climate change

At Latitude High School students worked on an interdisciplinary project to build tiny homes for unhoused youths in the Bay Area through a collaboration with Youth Build Artworks.    

Latitude Science Lead Regina Kruglyak studied engineering in college and worked in the field professionally, so bringing hands-on engineering into the classroom has been integral to her teaching.   

“In the classroom, students learn about physics and lots of engineering and design principles,” says Kruglyak. Students can apply concepts like Newton’s Laws and thermodynamics to building a house, while also learning about the root causes of homelessness in their community by studying systemic issues like gentrification.  

Students are equally excited to not only work on a project that truly helps someone else, but to also gain skills that they will have for the rest of their lives. 

“When students are physically building, a foreman comes out along with volunteers to work with students to get a close understanding about how to read a ruler, to use power tools, how to put up a roof, and then bigger things like designing furniture that is modular and multipurpose to fit in a tiny space,” Kruglyak says.  

STEAM Education IS the Future

The world we live in will only continue to become more complex, and it’s up to schools to ensure that students are equipped to adjust to its complexities. As the U.S. Department of Education states, it’s more important than ever that our students and future leaders: 

  • Develop the knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems
  • Have the capacity to make sense of information 
  • Know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make informed decisions

And students can do exactly that with high-quality STEAM education. 

Learn more about STEAM education and how some of the XQ schools are putting this approach to education in practice here: 

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