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.