Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part One

I don’t think I’ve ever done a two-part episode of Sciency Words before, but this turned out to be a more complicated and controversial topic than I originally expected.  I have some strong feelings about this, but for now I’ll keep those feelings to myself and endeavor to be fair to both sides of the debate over:

STEM vs. STEAM

Our story begins in the early 2000’s.  Studies were being published.  Important meetings were happening at the National Science Foundation.  There was a growing concern about the state of education in the United States.  Children were not learning what they needed to know in certain specific fields.  It seemed that a whole generation of young people would not be prepared for the high-tech job market of the future.

Thus, the concept of STEM education was born.  STEM, of course, is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  There’s been a strong push in recent years to get children excited about these subjects, to get them interested in pursuing STEM careers, and rightfully so.  Our world is changing, and children should be prepared for that.

But has this emphasis on STEM gotten out of hand? Has STEM led to a deemphasizing or even a devaluing of the arts?  Some worry that it has, and this has led to a new push to turn STEM into STEAM, with the A representing art.

The argument goes that the arts, or at least certain key aspects of the arts, are just as important in the high-tech world of tomorrow as the more traditional STEM fields.  As an example, think of a smartphone.  Think of the design team that figured out what the phone should look like, what it should feel like in your hand.  Think of the people who designed the user interface, with all those little icons that show you what your phone can do, and all those musical dings and beeps and whistles that let your phone tell you you got a text message, or that your download in complete, or that your battery is running low.  All those little niceties of design—it takes artists to do that.

But some people really are not happy about getting the arts mixed up with STEM.  Yes, the arts are important for a well-rounded education.  Yes, there’s a place for artists in the jobs market of the future.  But remember how our story began.  There was a growing concern that children were not getting the education they needed in certain specific fields. This was a crisis in the American education system, and the crisis is not over yet.  STEM education is only now starting to get the attention—and also the grant money—it so desperately needs.  We need to stay focused on the biggest problem areas in our education system.

Now I try to keep these blog posts fairly short.  I hope I did an okay job summarizing both sides of this issue, but if you think I left important points out, please feel free to yell at me in the comments below.  I’d especially love to hear from educators who may be on the front lines of this debate.

As for my own opinion… I guess if I had to choose sides, I’d be on team STEAM.  But I hate choosing sides in something like this.  From my perspective, more than anything else, this fight looks like a failure of language.  I’ll explain what I mean by that in part two.

8 Responses to Sciency Words: STEM vs. STEAM, Part One

  1. As a science teacher and a self-proclaimed hobby artist, I lean more towards STEM than STEAM. Don’t get me wrong, I think arts are really important in education, and even in the science classroom. However, the term “STEAM” really just refers to an all-round education, and in my mind is synonymous with “school”. Students take courses in arts, science, technology, and math just by going to school. STEM is more applicable to my classroom, and STEAM just muddies the waters.

    STEAM is a wonderful idea, but the schooling system in North America (and I would imagine in other parts of the world) is not set up for that ideology. Students go from class to class, which promotes their fragmented view of education, and the idea that each hour block is a different, stand-alone topic. To truly embrace STEAM, and make it applicable to a science classroom, the education system would need a complete overhaul. There would need to be more lateral flow between courses. Classes would need to deal with unified topics at the same time, and design projects that draw from all disciplines. That is a lot of work for teachers, and would require huge amounts of time that governments and schools don’t allow for. But, that is just my two cents…

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      I’m really glad to get your two cents on this. It’s been such a long time since I was in school, but I clearly remember having that fragmented view of education that you mention. I also remember an especially strong division between the arts and the sciences, to the point that arty kids (like me) and sciency kids almost seemed like rivals. So the idea that there might be some way to break down that particular barrier appeals to me. But I also recognize that at this point in my life I have almost no involvement in education (I’m neither a teacher nor a parent), and there are probably lots of practical considerations I’m not aware of. So again, I’m really happy to get your point of view on this. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate Rauner says:

    Interesting post. To me, STEM collects related studies and Arts just don’t fit. It’s like, STEM was getting some traction so Arts wanted to jump on the bandwagon. Go make up your own acronym.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, I get that point of view. While doing my research, I came across a few other acronyms like STREAM (the R is for reading). It started to get a little ridiculous. At some point, you’re just talking about a full and well rounded education.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have two kids in our local STEM program – it’s set up like an “Academy”, limited participation to 48 kids a year starting in 4th grade, you have to apply, etc. They don’t exclude arts – in fact it also gets them into an advanced language (English lit, writing, etc) and Social Studies/History curriculum and leaves enough room for other stuff – my boys do Robotics competitions after school, but they’re also both in band (Saxophone).

    So in our case, at least, I feel like the program is set up to be fairly well-rounded, and just HAPPENS to emphasize math and science. With a tweak you could definitely call it STEAM, and one of my biggest questions has been not about the focus, but the fact that this is set up as something DIFFERENT than regular curriculum. STEM feels like an over-reaction to a perceived problem and a forced separation — as a society we can up our game across the board without forcing a binary choice, and still allow for students to drift into the “advanced” classes where their talent and interests naturally take them.

    I’m a practicing engineer – I have to do a lot of writing, I need to understand people, different perspectives, cultures, historical references, and while I may not be as creative artistically (music aside), 3-D visualization of spacial relationships is a very important skill for the technical/mechanical/engineer/scientist mind – and I have all my non-STEM classes to thank for a well-rounded education. You can’t separate the two areas of study and expect to be your best at either one!

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Well put! I absolutely support STEM education, and I wish there had been more emphasis on STEM when I was growing up. It sounds like you’ve got your kids in a really good program, and I think that’s great.

      But when I first heard about STEAM, I really liked the idea. If little kid me had been exposed to that, I think he would have been so very excited, and he probably would have been a much better student in school.

      But doing research for this post led me to a lot of articles that made me pretty angry, basically saying the arts might be a nice hobby, but only STEM fields matter in the job market. It starts to turn into a forced binary choice, as you say, and I don’t think that’s good for anyone.

      Like

      • Agreed, and for what it’s worth, I think your particular skill combination – scientific interest backed up with research, combined with great creative writing and artistic talent (I love your sketches!) – is a great testament to the fact you don’t need to choose just one side of the coin.

        Liked by 1 person

      • J.S. Pailly says:

        Why, thank you! This is sort of why I think that, if I had to pick sides, I’d go with team STEAM. To do otherwise would feel sort of hypocritical.

        Like

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