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What is STEAM Education?

What does STEAM stand for in education? STEAM education is an approach to teaching and learning that integrates science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math as pathways to guide student inquiry, discussions, and critical thinking. Education experts say STEAM education 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

STEAM education allows students to probe thought-provoking questions—the types of questions with answers you can’t just search for online. STEAM is an approach to education that empowers students to be curious learners who seek creative solutions to real-world problems; this helps them develop the soft and hard skills necessary to succeed in college, their careers, and wherever else life takes them.

For instance, students in Crosstown High’s AP Human Geography class work on urban design projects that demonstrate what they want (and hope) their community will 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 learning.

STEAM education provides an interdisciplinary learning model where students can apply content knowledge as well as key skills. High-quality STEAM education prepares graduates to face real-life problems with more creativity, critical thinking, and effectiveness.

The approach is a growing in popularity, so much so that there’s even a national holiday dedicated to it: National STEAM Day is on November 8th. 

You may have also heard of STEM education. Although similar, STEAM and STEM education are different, and you should not use the two terms interchangeably. 

The Difference Between STEAM and STEM

It’s easy to see why people use STEAM and STEM interchangeably when the two approaches have such similar definitions. STEM education integrates concepts usually taught separately—science, technology, engineering, and math; the approach typically couples academic concepts with project-based learning

At first glance, it seems like STEM is the same as STEAM, just with an added letter. But it’s important to note that adding arts and crafts to a project or making the project “look pretty” doesn’t make it a STEAM lesson. It’s not enough to “add more color” or “glue paper cutouts of learnings onto a poster board”; you have to integrate the arts into the lesson so students can see how each relevant discipline connects and works together. That means students must first learn and explore different art techniques, artists, and composers, and then apply what they learn by creating, performing, presenting, and more. 

So, how are the two approaches different? Great question. 

The biggest difference between STEAM and STEM is that STEAM uses the same concepts as STEM but also incorporates the arts and sometimes humanities. This allows students to develop and use skills of inquiry, which are unique to the arts and humanities. 

STEM is about making connections across each discipline—science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2016, the U.S. workforce consisted of more than 17 million workers 25 or older (13% of the total U.S. workforce) in STEM occupations. And in each STEM field, applicants are considered more prepared and desirable when they have skills naturally embedded in the arts—the 4Cs known as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication. 

As the Institute for ARTS INTEGRATION and STEAM puts it, “Students in STEM programs may have more experiential learning opportunities, but they are limited to only science, technology, engineering, and math. Our economy requires so much more than an understanding of these areas—it requires application, creation, and ingenuity. STEM alone does not foster these essential nutrients.”

Education experts say that although science training provides a solid foundation of facts and basic science techniques, it doesn’t do a great job of examining how scientists foster creative and cross-disciplinary problem-solving skills. By allowing students to master the art of creative problem-solving, students learn how to preserve in the face of ambiguity and the obstacles it presents. 

In fact, research shows that students 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

That’s why the “A” in STEAM is so vital. Integrating the arts into STEM allows students to master the skills mentioned above, which supports their ability to succeed in the future. It also allows students not only to engage with their learning but also supports them in recalling and retaining the information they learned. 

Why does this matter? 

Science tells us that when a person learns a new concept, their brain creates neural pathways that help the individual connect the concept to their personal experience. When we give that person more access points to understand and comprehend the subject at hand, they’re better able to recall and retain what they learned.        

Integrating the arts into STEM creates another pathway for students to explore a single concept. So if you think about it, STEAM takes STEM a step further. STEAM education allows students to dive deeper into their learning by using the arts as an avenue to create a more meaningful and engaging learning environment

STEAM education allows students to connect their learning with art practices. Students can rely less on memorization tactics and more on truly comprehending the material they’re studying when they apply the tools of creation and inquiry from the arts to projects that focus on STEM content. 

Here’s an example of Latitude High students studying physics and design by creating a custom desk organizer, specifically designed for students. Students created the image below using CAD software, and students plan to use a 3D printer to bring their designs to life:

Not only were Latitude students deeply engaged because they were creating– by designing from scratch a product for other students like them– but they were also more inclined to research, iterate, and innovate because of it. 

What is STEAM Education and Why is It Important to the Future of Education

A big part of our education system’s function is to prepare students for the future workforce. When nearly half of the ten fastest-growing occupations are in STEAM fields, it’s easy to see why STEAM education is becoming more popular in education. 

There’s more of an emphasis in both STEM and STEAM in our education system after research showed the United States started falling behind other countries in the field of study:

Countries with STEM degree programsPercent of undergraduate citizens enrolled in STEM 
United States4.4%
United Kingdom6.1%

Educator Michelle H. Land reiterates the importance of STEAM education in her publication Full STEAM Ahead: The Benefits of Integrating the Arts Into STEM, “Progress does not come from technology alone but from the melding of technology and creative thinking through art and design. If the United States wants to remain a global competitor, it will be crucial to foster creative thinking and practice.” 

That’s where STEAM education comes in; 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. 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. 

Check out the STEAM education example below from PSI High. Students worked together with Siemens, an industrial manufacturing company, to design a smart mirror that displays weather, time, date, and company updates. And the final product is used to keep the engineering department informed throughout the workday.

The STEAM Education Model and How to Implement It

An important thing to keep in mind is that STEAM is an interdisciplinary approach to education— an approach that integrates different aspects of more than one academic discipline to examine a theme, issue, question, or topic. That means STEAM education is collaborative for both students and teachers.

Here are three quick tips to ensure that you implement STEAM education with full fidelity at your school: 

  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
6-Step STEAM Education Model
1Select an essential question to answer or problem to solve. Be sure to focus on how this question or problem relates to STEAM content areas you’re covering.
2Examine elements that contribute to the problem or question together with students. Provide background information and ask why the problem or question exists.
3Guide students as they research answers and solutions to the question or problem presented. When uncovering answers and solutions, observe students as they identify what’s working and what’s not. Use your observations to analyze gaps students may have in skill, process, or application. 
4Empower students to apply the skills, processes, and knowledge they gained in Step 3 to create their own solution to the question or problem presented. Ask students to other areas of the question or problem that still needs to be addressed. And empower students to persist through obstacles and trial and error. 
5Give students a platform to present their findings after refining their solution. It’s important for students to receive feedback from teachers, professionals, and peers. Encourage students to use their presentation as an opportunity to share their own perspectives surrounding the question or problem at hand. 
6Make time for students to reflect on the feedback received, as well as to reflect on their own process and skills. Students can use their reflection to revise and improve the solution they created. 

No matter how you choose to implement STEAM education programs in your school community, keep its core components in mind:

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

Do You Need a Designated STEAM Teacher?

The short answer is no, although some schools do have dedicated STEAM teachers or STEAM programs.

Just as learning can take place anywhere, STEAM education can take place in any classroom (no matter the subject). It’s more than having a school with a dedicated 3D printing lab. The whole point of STEAM is to inspire inquiry and curiosity; to empower students to ask thought-provoking questions that promote creativity and exploration, especially when it comes to problem-solving. With STEAM, no subject (or student) is excluded. 

But, it is crucial for educators to receive professional development to teach STEAM with integrity. 

More STEAM Education Examples

At Latitude High, students used physics, math, and engineering to construct a Tiny House village for homeless youth in the Bay Area. 

At PSI High, students developed their understanding of chemistry by interpreting memes, as part of a year-long emphasis on literacy for visual rhetoric. Take a look at one of the remote learning prompts below:

At Washington Leadership Academy, students work through a virtual reality curriculum to prepare for the AP Computer Science Principles exam. 

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

STEAM in Education IS the Future

The world we live in will only continue to become more complex, and it’s up to us 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. 

If you want to learn more about STEAM education and want to see how a few of our XQ schools are putting this approach to education in practice, check out these blogs: 

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