STEM. It’s a popular term these days, associated with everything from school curriculum discussions to promoting toy sales. An acronym created by its four pillars — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — there’s a good reason you hear about it so often. 

Introduced in 2001 by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), it replaced the clumsier-to-say SMET. But merely rearranging the acronym wasn’t the NSF’s only priority. 

Multiple reports were coming out that U.S. students were underperforming in the fields of science and mathematics. In fact, the 2006 PISA report (Programme for International Student Assessment) revealed that the U.S. ranked 21st out of 30 when it came to scientific competency and knowledge amongst 15-year old students nationwide. 

Hence, the need for a STEM focus. However, savvy students, educators and parents may have recently noticed that they’re seeing it touted as STEAM. What gives? 

Here we talk about why the arts are increasingly seen as a necessary part of STEM education and how it’s changing both the way students are taught and making STEM fields attractive to a whole new array of thinkers.

First, Let’s Talk STEM

As the world turned ever more technological in the early 2000s, the way students were taught needed to evolve to keep up. By increasing proficiency in critical science-related subjects, the U.S. realized it would maintain a more competitive workforce, which in turn could lead to greater prosperity both at an individual level and for the country overall. 

Quickly, educators and government officials adapted to put a stronger focus on math and the sciences so that they could better equip students for success in the 21st century. This was particularly critical when it comes to knowledge-intensive careers, such as those in the fields of social and behavioral science, health care, and information technology

However, the benefits of emphasizing STEM-based learning go far beyond its implications in specific fields. In fact, research shows that focusing on STEM is an engaging, innovative way to equip students with a variety of real-world skills, such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration. 

Bring on Your “A” Game

Fast forward nearly 20 years and educators are once again adapting their definition of STEM with the addition of the arts – which includes everything from liberal and language arts to social studies, visual arts, design and music. 

Whereas STEM was commonly thought of as focusing solely on scientific concepts, STEAM does the same while emphasizing the inquiry and problem-based learning methods commonly used in the creative process. What does this mean to students and educators? 

Here are three major ways STEAM is changing the game when it comes to learning. 

1. It helps provide a well-rounded education

By incorporating project-based learning and bridging the gap between arts and sciences, students are taught to make well-informed decisions that have an impact on the world around them. In an article written by the National Assembly of State Art Agencies (NASAA), it’s noted that using the arts to actively engage students inspires hunger for learning that increases motivation and encourages risk-taking in a supportive environment. 

2. It creates a new type of student

By including the arts in STEM-based learning, University of Arizona Global Campus instructor Steph Younggonzaga says students and educators are free to embrace both left-brained and right-brained thinkers in a way that opens the arena up to people who may not consider themselves great at core STEM subjects. This, in turn, makes STEM more accessible for all types of learners and can serve as an entry point for students who may not have initially thought a career in a STEM-related field was a possibility.

Art is often thought of as ethereal or ephemeral, and perhaps even worse ‘right-brained’, as if a person will only have one side or the other,” Younggonzaga explains. “However, art is synonymous with ingenuity, imagination, and creativity – the same elemental aspects I use as an IT person and as a technologist.” 

3. It establishes the next step in 21st-century thinking

Freely mixing science, technology, and the arts puts STEAM-thinking squarely on the path to take future employees into the 22nd century. By fostering an interest in the concepts as well as the “hows” and “whys” of creative problem-solving, students are better equipped to deliver the multiple areas of expertise that modern employers and business ventures demand. 

They’ll also be better prepared to incorporate particularly useful skills that will be critical to lifelong success, such as connection, collaboration, critical thinking, and culture, Younggonzaga explains, adding that it is this type of collaboration that inspires innovation. 

“Truly, it takes both sides of the brain working in concert in order to realize the kinds of discoveries and advances that we’ve witnessed in the past few decades,” she says.

Are You STEAM-Ready?

As actor and producer Sam Waterston once said, that if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling back. By evolving both the focus of education in the U.S. and the current global mentality about science- and technology-related fields, STEAM is preparing students to nimbly face the demands of an increasingly complex world. 

Adding the “A” to STEAM creates a more engaging (and infinitely customizable framework) for learning that encourages students to engage a wider array of their talents and interests. 

Boosting this type of innovative thinking allows even the most strategic thinkers to unleash their imaginations and address real-life issues from every angle. And perhaps best of all? It can add an element of fun that makes the entire field of STEM (or STEAM) sound less intimidating and more approachable for learners of all types. 


Written by University Staff

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