STEAM vs STEM Education

I’m an equal lover of science and art, but when it comes to education, there’s a debate over which is the most beneficial: STEAM vs STEM.

While both are important, we need to examine which model you should prioritize for your child.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STEAM adds the arts into the mix. STEM’s explicit focus is on science and math-based subjects, where STEAM integrates the arts into teaching those subjects.

steam-vs-steam-education

STEM: The Basics

As stated above, STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. You may have heard of STEM in passing with movements such as getting more women and people of color into STEM fields or the uprising of STEM-certified education centers.

There’s an apparent shortage of workers in STEM fields, hence the demand for STEM education from K–12 in schools.

As we know, science and mathematics are staple subjects in the curriculum. Where STEM differs is that it takes science, technology, engineering and math and teaches students in a comprehensive bundle. 

STEM education is often project-based and packs each element into the process. Projects may include:

  • Coding educational games.
  • Building small and functional items.
  • Making stop-motion shorts.

Each activity is fun and teaches children the basics of a STEM-related skill, often incorporating critical thinking alongside other elements of engineering, mathematics, science and technology into the mix; for example, coding a mathematics-based or problem-solving game or creating a stop-motion short about a scientist. 

The aim of STEM programs is to push students towards a real-world career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

As well as the above, the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama, had another goal with STEM subjects: have the United States “move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math.”

STEAM: The Basics

The whole debate about STEM vs STEAM is over the A: arts.

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and is much the same concept as STEM, but seemingly less valued and sought in education centers. It’s more of a recent addition to many curriculums.

With STEAM education, there’s still a focus on science, math, engineering and technology—but through the projects, children learn artistic expression, too.

For example, let’s go back to the three projects mentioned above and see how we could add the A into them.

  • Students could make their own drawings for the math or problem-solving game they code.
  • The small and functional items could double as decor—for example, a customized music box.
  • Children can design and craft their own figurines for the stop motion science short.

Other project ideas include crafting projects with scientific elements—making crystals in science class and using them to make a pretty crystal garden.

As you can see, by no means are STEAM programs telling kids to drop the sciences and run off to the theater club. They’re simply incorporating an additional vital element of life and development to further expand their minds and potential future careers or hobbies.

STEAM: Why It Matters

The STEM workforce is lacking, and the arts market is oversaturated with starving artists who never make it in their chosen field. Why should kids learn the A at all?

We need to single out the arts in science, technology, engineering, arts and ask:

Why Are the Arts Important?

Americans for the Arts report that students who dabble in the arts at least three times a week for a year have higher participation in the other STEAM subjects. They’re also four times more likely to find success in their chosen academic subject or field.

On a similar note, a 2010 study shows that including the arts in public elementary and high school curriculums led to:

  • Better test scores.
  • Higher attendance and graduation rates.
  • Fewer disciplinary issues.

We can draw the conclusion that allowing kids to express themselves creatively incentivizes them to do well in school. It adds enjoyment to the experience, rather than having them learn for the sake of learning. Wouldn’t you prefer to engage if there was something in it for you rather than the simple reason of “you have to”?

Why STEM Is Important Without the A

There will always be those people who state that all arts are a waste of time and resources. Students should focus on careers that advance the world and earn a solid income—they can learn to like their jobs, even if they’re creatively unfulfilled.

With these people, it comes down to this:

Are the Sciences More Important Than Art?

You cannot bluntly state that science is more important than art. To a biologist? Of course, science wins. To a rock band guitarist? Art is life; science is for the people in the white coats with goggles.

What about for robotics students? Sure, science and technology make the parts move. However, the robot also needs to take the basic shape of a human, animal or whatever creature/object it’s modeled on. For that, the students need to know at least the basics of drawing or crafting human anatomy.

Right now, there is no study proving or trying to prove that science is more important than art, or vice versa. The former advances the world, but the latter aids personal growth; they’re incomparable.

People will always have their preferences, so it’s down to you which you prioritize in your child’s education. 

Remember, wanting your kids to learn STEM doesn’t mean they can’t also indulge in the A. The subjects are taught together with equal focus on each, so your child loses nothing with STEAM but misses out with STEM.

Why Merge Art and Science?

You could argue that art and science are too different to teach together. Again, the reasons for and against are opinion, not fact-based. There are few studies on this query, but there are a few arguments for this merging that I’d like to share:

Sustainability Action and Societal Change

A paper examines the impact that arts have on scientific education and breakthroughs in the world. It’s a hefty and complex read, but here’s the main argument I’ve gathered from the study:

Science teaches you facts where art allows for the “what if.” If you combine indisputable scientific knowledge with some imagination and creativity, you can use science to change the world.

The study also argues that the current method of stating facts rather than allowing for the “what if” discussion is unsustainable for children’s engagement. As we saw in the studies earlier, this is true: kids do better when they study the arts.

Visualization

Another reason to merge art and science is to help children and adults alike visualize the areas of science we cannot understand.

Let’s take astrophysics as an example. We didn’t know what a black hole really looked like until April, 2019. On the other hand, anyone who watches science fiction has seen black holes in their favorite shows and movies.

Scientists used data to come up with artistic renditions of a black hole’s probable appearance to create the black hole imagery we all know today. 

This is common with astrophysics, but we can also see this demonstrated with the atom; anyone who’s studied science has seen an atom model, but we didn’t have a real image until November, 2020.

Design

We touched on this earlier, but artistic design is a vital part of science. So, even if STEAM wins over STEM, engineers in particular still need expertise from someone who studied art and design as well as a STEM program.

Look at every piece of technology you own. Someone with a knowledge of science and art, or a pair with their respective talents, designed it to be the best version of itself for you.

An artist created the blueprint for your cellphone to ensure it was ergonomic and compact but still large enough to see easily. An engineer put the components together through the design and made it all work.

This undeniable combination of STEM and the arts proves art and science are already interlinked.

Which Is Better? STEM vs STEAM

With the knowledge of what they are and the argument to put the A in STEM, can we determine which education model is superior?

Yes and no. 

It’s always going to be down to preference and what you prioritize with STEM vs STEAM, but if we look at the facts of STEM and STEAM, STEAM seems to win based on the studies on children who engage in the arts.

Remember, the arts don’t just include drawing either, but dancing, theatrics, literature and a whole host of other activities that can increase their productivity, critical thinking and appreciation of STEM.

Final Thoughts: STEM and STEAM

The STEM vs STEAM debate will likely never end, but at least now you know the benefits of STEM and STEAM education.

STEM and STEAM education are vital in both elementary and high school, regardless of which you choose, but logic and science argue that STEAM education is the most beneficial. 

You could argue STEM vs STEAM all day—in the end, it’s best to just know the basics of STEM and STEAM and decide what’s important to you in your child’s life.

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